The Pulse

Taliban’s Outreach to Iran Worsens Pakistan’s Afghanistan Dilemma 

Recent Features

The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Taliban’s Outreach to Iran Worsens Pakistan’s Afghanistan Dilemma 

The Taliban government is trying to anticipate Pakistan’s potential moves and limit whatever leverage Islamabad holds over Afghanistan.

Taliban’s Outreach to Iran Worsens Pakistan’s Afghanistan Dilemma 
Credit: Depositphotos

The Afghan government’s decision to approach Iran for the prospective use of Chabahar port indicates the uncertainty it attributes to long-term relations with Pakistan. The Afghan government is trying to anticipate Pakistan’s potential moves and limit whatever leverage the latter holds over Afghanistan. A successful arrangement between Afghanistan and Iran can provide the ruling Taliban regime in Kabul with policy alternatives and reduce its dependence on Pakistan. 

As for Pakistan, a potential Iran-Afghanistan corridor that connects Iran with Central Asian countries (with the Afghan Taliban as beneficiaries and security guarantors) will negatively affect its strategic importance. This corridor will impact Pakistan’s plans to become the trade passage connecting Central Asia with the world and thereby benefit from the vast natural resources of the region. 

For Pakistan, therefore, the Iran-Afghanistan-Central Asia corridor can be a problem for at least two reasons. First, in the regional context, it does not leave sufficient space for Pakistan and may enable India to expand its footprint in the region. A significant Indian presence to the west is a nightmare that the Pakistani leadership has tried to avoid at a great cost of blood and treasure. Such an arrangement is also financially troublesome, as the leadership is optimistic about a potential China-led regional connectivity with Islamabad playing the role of intermediary. In recent years, both political and military leaders have repeatedly proposed the expansion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan and beyond. 

Second, it limits Pakistan’s leverage to solve the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) problem. In the fight against militancy and terrorism, the country and its populace have paid a cost beyond their capacity and suffered from unimaginable tragedies. However, after two decades of war – costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars – and suffering, there is still no end in sight. The TTP as well as non-aligned militant groups, which operate independently, are ever-strong and have no plans to end their struggle against the state. Their familiarity with the difficult political and economic situation of Pakistan urges them to continue with attacks. 

Pakistan, on the other hand, seems to have exhausted many of its options in recent years. It has been trying different options to deal with militants since the beginning of the war on terror. In the last ten years, for instance, Pakistan launched information and military operations against the TTP, resorted to negotiations and resettlement of former militants who pledged to not take up arms again, negotiated a few ceasefires, involved the Afghan Taliban as intermediaries, and constrained them to oust the TTP leadership from their country while continuously targeting militants inside and across the border. 

Why does Pakistan suffer from a never-ending war with no acceptable solution in sight? There are two main reasons: constant policy changes and misplaced hopes and expectations. 

Pakistan’s best possible chance to address the issue came in December 2014 after the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. The populace responded to the call of political and military leadership. Anti-Taliban sentiment remained high with favorable views for military operations. Pakistan’s zero-tolerance policy paid off quickly and the number of terrorist incidents decreased significantly in the country.

But the situation started changing after 2018 when a new government under the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was sworn in. The new leadership had a different view of the Taliban (both in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and the war on terror. They prepared grounds for the resettlement of former militants. However, the resettlement initiative jolted the anti-militant narrative and momentum in the country. 

The state’s response to stories of militants roaming streets was mixed, with some spokespersons undermining the threat the TTP (and other groups) posed. Their responses reflected confusion about whether Pakistan was fighting for itself. Throughout, the PTI signaled confidence that all was under control and hope that they would be able to deliver results. 

The political government was not alone in attaching high hopes to the peace process. Many scholars and practitioners, including the security apparatus, held similar opinions. The idea that Pakistan could discipline the TTP with help of the Afghan Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan substantially influenced their policy prescriptions. Their statements on the Taliban’s gains and the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan echoed their support and hopes. 

This momentum continued in the early months of withdrawal. Pakistan became a leading voice for Afghanistan and provided the Taliban leadership with diplomatic platforms to raise their voice. 

Nothing substantial came from the Afghan Taliban in return, however. Contrary to what many Pakistanis had expected, the Afghan government did not rein in the TTP. Initially, only media channels and social media platforms reported about TTP leadership meetings and presence in Afghanistan, but the Pakistani leadership broke its silence eventually. Their annoyance soon became evident and they began pointing fingers at Afghanistan for a significant increase in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, mostly in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. 

In response, the Afghan government denied that the TTP and other militant groups had any presence on its territory – despite numerous public videos and news of TTP leaders’ assassinations – and criticized Pakistan for its mismanagement and blame game. 

The Afghan government’s response was unacceptable to the Pakistani leadership. In reprisal, Pakistan upped the ante by announcing the return of “illegal Afghan immigrants” – most of whom were residing without valid permits or had overstayed – to their country. It carried out the policy notwithstanding the concerns of the international community. However, even the imminent arrival of 1 million refugees did not change Kabul’s calculations. 

Pakistan sent back about half a million Afghan refugees in a few months. Border trade with Afghanistan also remained disturbed throughout this period. Pakistan’s demands, although legal, regarding the visa regime and border control met severe resistance from the other side. 

The intermittent closure of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in recent months appears to have sent a strong message to Kabul. The fact that Pakistan can permanently close its borders to deny Afghanistan trade remains a part of Kabul’s strategic calculations. The Afghan government has, therefore, decided to look for new options to address its Pakistan problem. A gateway to the world provided by Iran through its India-funded port will help it convey the message to Pakistan, which appears to have exhausted most of its options. 

Pakistan’s failure to convince the Taliban leadership by reaching out through diplomatic and religious leadership is clear. It is telling that Islamabad must resort to appeals at the United Nations in its bid to make the Afghan government deny sanctuary and act against the TTP. Meanwhile, mergers of militant groups with the TTP and its incessant attacks in Pakistan imply what may come next for Pakistan. 

The Afghan government is in no mood to change its priorities and policies. Meanwhile, nothing seems to be working in favor of Pakistan, as its problems with Afghanistan are occurring amid politically and economically challenging times.