Following the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has made rapid advances across stretches of the country, seizing many provincial capitals from the embattled Afghan government in Kabul. This may appear to be a welcome development for the Taliban’s backers in neighboring Pakistan. But the ensuing fallout could complicate matters.
How do Pakistani leaders view the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Pakistani military leaders, the country’s de facto rulers, would have likely preferred a peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan, provided that their Taliban proxies held decisive influence in any future Afghan government. They would especially like to see the Taliban gain hold of the Afghan security apparatus, including the country’s leading national intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. The generals in Rawalpindi believe the directorate is hostile to their country and that it works closely with their archenemy India to destabilize Pakistan by, for instance, supporting Pashtun and Baloch nationalists in Pakistan who are demanding political rights and regional autonomy.
Moreover, senior Pakistani military officers—and, not coincidently, the Taliban—consider Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (and his government) ineffective and illegitimate at best, and an American stooge at worst. Hence, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan has a silver lining for them: it removes the U.S. security umbrella that they believe New Delhi was using to expand its influence in Afghanistan at Islamabad’s expense.
What role, if any, has Pakistan played in the Taliban’s latest insurgency?
Virtually no one buys Pakistani denials about the country’s links to the Taliban. Pakistan’s current military-backed leader, Prime Minister Imran Khan (aptly nicknamed Taliban Khan), recently made the outlandish claim that the Taliban are “not a military outfit” but rather “normal civilians.” He asserted without evidence that most Afghan refugees in the country sympathize with the Taliban, claiming that this makes it difficult for Pakistani authorities to act against the group.
But it is no secret that the Pakistani military has long-standing ties to the Afghan Taliban. Its premiere intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was instrumental in the creation of the group in the 1990s during the Afghan civil war following the Soviet withdrawal. Since then, the ISI has been the militant group’s principal external patron, reportedly providing it with financial resources, training, weapons, logistical support, and (above all) a safe haven in Pakistani territory that has been crucial to the Taliban’s ability to wage an effective insurgency against the Afghan state and international forces. While the Taliban has other reasons not to compromise with Kabul (including the group’s military successes), the physical sanctuary and diplomatic support from Pakistan reinforces the Taliban’s inclination to press ahead.
How much influence does Pakistani wield over the Taliban these days?
Pakistan’s military, particularly the ISI, retains considerable leverage over the Taliban despite the militant group’s significant territorial gains in Afghanistan. For example, members of the Taliban’s leadership council (shura) safely reside in Pakistan (including in Quetta in Balochistan Province).The Taliban can freely move men and materiel into Afghanistan, use Pakistani hospitals to treat their wounded fighters, and communicate with their operational commanders in Afghanistan; in some instances, they have even used Pakistani passports to travel abroad. They also reportedly own lucrative real estate holdings and have significant business interests in the Pakistani cities of Karachi, Peshawar, and Quetta.
Moreover, the head of the ISI-backed Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was appointed to be one of the two deputy leaders of the Taliban in 2015, a personnel move that has further enhanced the agency’s sway over the Taliban. In the end, for the Pakistani military, it is not a question of whether they wield enough influence over the Taliban, but of how willing Pakistan’s generals are to use it.
What does the rising insurgent violence in Afghanistan mean for Pakistan, especially if the Taliban were to oust the Ghani government in Kabul?
It is important to acknowledge that the people of Afghanistan are the primary casualties of the conflict. But Pakistan could also suffer serious fallout from continued instability and increased violence in Afghanistan, including a significant influx of refugees and the resurgence of local militant groups energized by Taliban victories.
Especially worrisome (for Pakistan) is the resurgence of the Deobandi Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan). This conglomerate of jihadi and sectarian groups, which seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state, has regrouped in their erstwhile strongholds of South and North Waziristan, which border Afghanistan’s insurgent-affected eastern provinces of Paktika and Paktia. The Pakistani Taliban, who are loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban, orchestrated a deadly countrywide terrorist campaign in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014. The leaders of the Pakistani Taliban escaped to Afghanistan after the Pakistani military launched a major offensive against them in 2014. The group since has aided the Afghan Taliban’s military operations against Afghan forces in Afghanistan. While the Pakistani generals might expect the Afghan Taliban to rein in their Pakistani counterparts, there is little evidence to suggest they are in a hurry to oblige.
In recent months, the Pakistani Taliban has ramped up violence against both political opponents and Pakistani security forces, while also targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. A deadly July 2021 bomb attack killed at least thirteen people, including nine Chinese nationals working on a hydropower project under the multi-billion dollar surge of Chinese investment through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In addition to Chinese concerns about the safety of its investments in the country, Pakistan would also risk international isolation if the Taliban seize power and reestablish their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which would put an end to civil liberties, media freedoms, and women’s rights in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan’s ruling generals, these potential costs seem to be outweighed by the benefits of putting a friendly government in Kabul that would deny New Delhi a foothold in their backyard.
Why has Pakistan supported the Taliban at Kabul’s expense?
In addition to neutralizing India’s influence in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military also sees the U.S. exit as a chance to undercut resurgent Pashtun nationalism. Such nationalism is represented by the popular nonviolent Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, which demands accountability for the military’s alleged human rights violations against Pashtun civilians during its counterterrorism operations against the Pakistani Taliban, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Rather than addressing the movement’s genuine grievances, Pakistani authorities have cracked down on its leaders and accused them of being enemy agents colluding with the Indian and Afghan intelligence services to vilify the country’s army, including through disinformation on social media.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and have traditionally dominated the Afghan state. Pakistani leaders have typically considered any Pashtun-led government (such as the Ghani regime or the previous one led by former president Hamid Karzai) as providing a fillip to Pashtun nationalists on its side of the Durand Line. This British colonial-era boundary splits the Pashtun heartland between the two countries. Afghanistan has long refused to recognize the Durand Line as an international border, a refusal the Pakistani military sees as clear evidence of Kabul’s revisionist designs. This explains the Pakistani generals’ support for the Islamist Taliban (or previously for former mujahadeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) who are ethnically Pashtun, but not ethnic nationalists.
How might Pakistan’s relationship with the United States change now that U.S. troops largely are out of Afghanistan?
U.S.-Pakistani relations have already become strained due to the stalled Afghan peace process and the Taliban’s crushing military advances, including the capture of lucrative Afghan towns on the borders with Pakistan and Iran and vital provincial capitals, such as Herat in western Afghanistan and the group’s birthplace of Kandahar in the south.
Despite Pakistan’s perceived importance in brokering an Afghan peace deal, U.S. President Joe Biden has shunned Khan from the process, which has frustrated Pakistani officials. The Biden administration expected Pakistan’s military leaders to use their influence over the Taliban to persuade them to accept a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government, in return for international recognition and financial aid. But Islamabad has done little to restrain the Taliban from their relentless campaign to take over Afghanistan by force, even though Pakistani leaders claim to be genuinely interested in finding a political settlement to the conflict. And given a haphazard American exit, the absence of a coordinated international approach to Afghanistan, and the willingness of permanent UN Security Council members like Russia, China, and even the UK to work with a Taliban regime, the Pakistani generals remain confident that Islamabad will not pay a heavy price for continuing its support of the Taliban.
The world has seen this movie before. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pakistani military successfully leveraged its selective antiterrorism cooperation (including communication lines and access to Pakistani air bases for drone operations). This allowed Pakistan not only to extract billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance but also to get away with aiding Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s proximity to land-locked Afghanistan gives Pakistani leaders continued leverage over the United States. For instance, the U.S. military still uses Pakistani air space for overflights to support deployed U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. The Biden administration also has a keen interest in using Pakistani air bases to maintain nearby counterterrorism capabilities to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a hub for transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.