Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban: Friends Becoming Foes

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Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban: Friends Becoming Foes

At first, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan was considered synonymous with Pakistan’s victory. But disappointed hopes on both sides now have the neighbors at loggerheads.

Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban: Friends Becoming Foes
Credit: Depositphotos

It is not only Afghanistan, under Taliban leadership, that has been in shambles in the recent months – neighboring Pakistan has also been on a downward trajectory, with its security situation and economy in dire straits. Adding to the difficulties, while the two countries grapple with multiple crises at home, their relationship is marked by a lot of friction.

The souring of the relationship was unexpected and startling for many. Pakistan, over the years, was deemed the Taliban’s principal supporter, notwithstanding the presence of international forces in Afghanistan for two decades following 9/11. But Pakistan has now gone to the extent of attributing its security woes to the assistance provided by militants in Afghanistan, indirectly blaming the Afghan Taliban.

A recent report from the United States Institute of Peace suggests that militants targeting the Pakistani state receive support from the Afghan Taliban, who are at the helm of affairs since the withdrawal of international forces in August 2021. Perhaps Islamabad did not anticipate this – at first, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan was considered synonymous with Pakistan’s victory owing to the historical convergence of interests between the two.

How has the Afghan Taliban-Pakistan relationship evolved against the backdrop of geopolitical changes in the region, and why are the two erstwhile friends at loggerheads now?

The Pakistan-Taliban Relationship

Pakistan has long been seen as not only sympathetic toward the Taliban in Afghanistan but also the group’s main patron since its inception in the 1990s. This background contributed to the impression that policymakers in Islamabad were jubilant over the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in August 2021, despite fears that it could be disastrous for regional peace and stability.

In fact, some in the policy corridors in Islamabad believed it was Pakistan that had actually triumphed in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban taking over Kabul, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the people in Afghanistan had “broken the shackles of slavery,” essentially eulogizing the Taliban victory.

Pakistan’s then-top spy was subsequently seen having tea in a relaxed mood in Kabul. “Don’t worry, everything will be okay,” he said to a reporter when asked about the future of Afghanistan.

However, notwithstanding Pakistan’s historical intimacy with the Taliban, the relationship between the two is becoming more complex than ever. Tensions have started cropping up between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. This is primarily because both the Taliban and Pakistan view each other differently than they did prior to 9/11 and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The Taliban do not want to operate as Pakistan’s proxies. They no longer trust the Pakistani state – particularly its military – owing to the fact that it quickly became a foe in the wake of American pressure and went to the extent of handing over Taliban leaders to the United States. The Taliban saw this as a betrayal – something that is unforgivable in Afghanistan’s tribal Pashtun culture.

Pakistan recalibrated its policy later, reinvigorating its relationship with the Taliban as the United States allowed Islamabad’s arch-rival India to play a pivotal role in Afghanistan. The Taliban were Pakistan’s bid for offsetting India’s ingress into Afghanistan. However, trust between the Taliban and Islamabad was lost, even though strategic bilateral cooperation was revived.

For the Taliban, while the U.S. forces were in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan were restored out of political expediency and the need for sanctuaries. But the sanctuaries are no longer needed, hence there is no need for the Taliban to rely on Pakistan for their survival.

Reasons for the Falling Out

In the recent months, the souring of relations between the Taliban and Pakistan can be attributed to various thorny issues. Following August 2021, the Taliban expected Pakistan to cajole the international community (particularly the Western powers, with which Islamabad has remained an ally) to either offer de jure or at least de facto recognition of the Taliban regime. Islamabad hoped that the international community might recognize the Taliban government, provided it met certain conditions.

But there is little appetite in the world to recognize the Taliban, given their notorious track record when it comes human rights – especially women’s and minority rights. Plus, Pakistan’s own relations with the Western powers have soured over the last few years, and it thus never had the diplomatic muscle to convince the world to recognize the Taliban.

For its part, Pakistan broadly expected the Taliban to either take some sort of concrete action against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) – who are distinct from the Afghan Taliban and primarily target the Pakistani forces – or prevent them from launching attacks inside Pakistan’s territory.

The Afghan Taliban kept reiterating that they would not allow anyone from the territory they hold to carry out militancy or terrorism in another state. Also, the Afghan Taliban offered their so-called good offices to facilitate reconciliation or a truce between the Pakistan state and the Pakistani Taliban. This has not been borne out – in fact, the Pakistani Taliban have ramped up attacks inside Pakistan’s territory in recent months.

The third issue that has caused friction between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban is the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Taliban, like all preceding Afghan governments, remain unwilling to recognize the Durand Line as the border between the two countries. In fact, there has been a series of skirmishes along the border between the Pakistani military and Taliban forces – a development that has astonished many.

This has been coupled with allegations that the U.S. drones targeting suspected terrorists in Afghanistan might be flying from bases in Pakistan. Following the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last year, the Taliban emphasized that Pakistan was allowing the use of its airspace for such strikes and was thus complicit. Moreover, in a veiled threat to Islamabad, the Taliban warned of “bad consequences.” Pakistan denies allowing use of its bases or airspace for U.S. drone strikes inside Afghanistan.

Another decisive factor that might considerably degrade Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban could be the group extending unprecedented overtures to India. To this end, Mullah Yaqub – the all-powerful defense minister of the Taliban regime and Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s son – expressed a willingness to send Afghan personnel to India for military training, saying his government will not “have any issue with it.”

Does this herald a game-changer in the Taliban-Pakistan-India matrix? Only time will tell – Islamabad nurtured the Taliban to balance India’s clout, after all.

The Way Ahead

The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad is more complex and tense than ever, and this does not bode well for either side.

With militants ratcheting up attacks in Pakistan, it is imperative to ensure that the TTP fighters do not use Afghanistan as a launching pad. If the attacks continue, Islamabad might contemplate launching airstrikes or hot pursuit missions inside Afghanistan’s territory – something that can be counterproductive and detrimental to regional peace.

Meanwhile, for the Taliban regime, Pakistan is still the most important external actor. Lack of Islamabad’s support means lack of stability in Afghanistan. Any sustained economic growth in Afghanistan will also require close cooperation with Pakistan.

Both states thus need to tread carefully – a prosperous future demands inclusive peace and decision-making that is in sync with modern socio-political realities at the global level. The international community should also facilitate cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul insofar as both the countries could be nudged away from their recent past.