Since the Taliban captured Kabul over a month ago, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders have been desperately trying to convince the world that the Taliban are a newer, more moderate version of the Islamist militant group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Downplaying international fears about the egregiousness of Taliban rule, Pakistani leaders have claimed that the Taliban are, this time, open to sharing power and protecting basic human rights—if only the international community would give them time and money.
The Taliban have been in power for six weeks, but their actions clearly belie these claims of moderation. The Taliban have violated each of the four key promises they made to the international community: the creation of an inclusive government, general amnesty for those who had worked in the previous government or with U.S. forces, the protection of women’s rights, and the denial of Afghan soil to transnational terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.
But having long nurtured the Taliban as a proxy to exert its influence over Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government continues its feverish diplomatic efforts to convince the international community of the group’s newly found moderation. Even so, its bid to legitimize the Taliban’s usurpation of state power in Afghanistan may be undermined by the group’s intransigence.
The Fiction of Inclusion
To make the Taliban appear more palatable to international audiences, their Pakistani backers continue to peddle the fiction of an inclusive Taliban government. But inclusion is a democratic concept that is alien to the Taliban, whose default governance model is a centralized dictatorship with supreme religious and political authority held by an anointed amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful).
It is no surprise that the Taliban’s interim government is filled with the group’s hardline political and military leaders, a veritable who’s who of international terrorists and individuals on various blacklists. For example, Acting Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund is on a UN sanctions list. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the infamous Haqqani faction of the Taliban and a globally designated terrorist, has been appointed to head the Ministry of Interior, which puts him in charge of internal security. The Taliban have belatedly included outsiders within their ranks, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and one Shia Hazara individual. But the governing cabinet does not represent even Afghanistan’s majority-Pashtun population—because even though most Taliban are ethnically Pashtun, their primary identity and ideology is Sunni (Deobandi) Islamism rather than ethnic ties. The case is much worse for ethnic minorities and women.
And even if the Taliban were to make their government more inclusive by including token outsiders, they would not necessarily become more moderate. Inclusive or not, the brutal autocratic nature of their rule is unlikely to change.
A Lack of Amnesty
The Taliban’s offer of amnesty seems to be little more than a euphemism for reprisals. For example, human rights organizations have documented the execution of security personnel and government workers in revenge killings, including members of the persecuted Shia Hazara minority. Credible media reports confirm summary civilian executions by the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, the center of anti-Taliban resistance, including the execution of resistance leader and former vice president Amrullah Saleh’s brother.
Underreported in international media, the Taliban have reportedly targeted allies of the former government, police officers, and women judges who jailed many of them. They have also tortured journalists and rights activists. Moreover, they have forcibly evicted hundreds of Hazara families from their homes and farmland in the Gizab area in Daykundi Province in central Afghanistan.
A Rollback of Women’s Rights
The Taliban have tried to systematically erase women from public life as many women’s rights activists and organizations had warned would happen. They have imposed dress restrictions on women, segregated universities, effectively banned girls from seeking secondary education by refusing to reopen schools for girls studying beyond grade six, ordered women employees of the government in Kabul and the rest of the country to stay home, and brutally suppressed women’s protests.
To add insult to injury, the Taliban have closed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was tasked with protecting women’s political and civil rights. Instead, they have repurposed it into the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—a reincarnation of the feared moral police that terrorized Afghans, especially women, during the Taliban’s last stint in power.
Potentially Renewed Links With Terrorism
While the the Taliban don’t have global jihadist aspirations, they have not shown any inclination to deny sanctuary to global terrorist groups. Admittedly, the Taliban have an adversarial relationship with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Khorasan Province—because that group poses a direct threat to their rule. Nonetheless, the Taliban also have long-standing ties to al-Qaeda that date back to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan; these links have been reinforced over time through family bonds and as the two fought together against the United States and its allies.
It is unclear whether the Taliban would again risk U.S. retaliation if there was a terrorist attack on the United States that originated in Afghanistan—a risk they took in 2001 by refusing the U.S. demand to hand over Osama bin Laden. But the Taliban have freed senior al-Qaeda operatives from prison, and at least one major al-Qaeda leader has since made a triumphant public return to his hometown in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
At the same time, the Taliban flatly denied that al-Qaeda has any presence in Afghanistan. Few experts doubt that al-Qaeda’s strength has been degraded, and many believe that it is unlikely to be revived quickly, if at all. But U.S. intelligence officials estimate that the Taliban’s provision of safe havens to al-Qaeda will help the group reconstitute inside Afghanistan—and that it may be able to launch attacks against the U.S. mainland in a year or two. In any event, the Taliban are not about to ditch their al-Qaeda or other jihadist allies—no matter what the United States wants them to do.
Pakistan’s Dangerous Calculus
Pakistan’s dream was to effectively evict India—which had supported the previous government of president Ashraf Ghani—from Afghanistan and install its own proxy government to achieve strategic depth against its archrival. Islamabad has achieved that geopolitical goal. Now what?
Even though Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban may be diminishing now that the group is in power (and needs to demonstrate its autonomy from Islamabad), Pakistan is still trying to protect its long-term investment in the Taliban. The Inter-Services Intelligence agency has expended much blood and treasure on behalf of the Taliban over the last three decades, providing them with training, arms, logistical support, and, above all, a sanctuary. As Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, a well-known jihadist sympathizer, stated recently, “Most of the top Taliban leaders were born and educated in Pakistan. Many of them are still here. We have done a lot for them.”
Pakistani officials are keenly aware that diplomatic isolation and continued international sanctions could undermine Taliban rule. The Taliban lack political legitimacy and face a dire economic situation, and their Pakistani custodians may fear that public resentment and anger toward the new regime could boil over. This could lead the Taliban to use repressive tactics, which could further anger the international community, isolate the regime, and (by extension) damage Pakistan’s credibility.
Not surprisingly, the military-backed government of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly urged the international community to engage the Taliban government and unfreeze Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves to incentivize better behavior by the Taliban. Pakistani officials have also sought to leverage the country’s serious humanitarian crisis to press for international aid to the Taliban. They have even tried to scare the United States into cooperating with the Taliban by arguing that abandoning Afghanistan would allow the reemergence of a failed state, creating the conditions for another terrorist attack on the United States comparable to the attacks on September 11, 2001. In other words, Pakistan is playing a dangerous game of chicken: daring the United States to make concessions or risk letting Afghanistan become a terrorist safe haven once again.
The Stakes for Pakistan
Ironically, Pakistan could become one of the biggest losers of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The Taliban appear to have no desire to meaningfully assuage international sensitivities about women’s education or human rights. They continue to delay in allowing girls back into secondary schools. And they have already pledged to reinstate severe punishments such as public executions for murder and amputations for theft. Nothing is more emblematic of the reality of Taliban rule than the mutilated corpse of an alleged kidnapper recently seen hanging from a crane in a town square in the western city of Herat. In fact, the more the Taliban indulge in such gruesome practices, the less likely it is that the group will gain international acceptance—and the more likely it is that Pakistan’s pleas for internationally engaging with the Taliban will go unheeded.
Moreover, the Taliban’s capture of Kabul has already encouraged local militants in Pakistan. The radical head of the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad, who is a known Taliban sympathizer, has hoisted Taliban flags and threatened Pakistani authorities with reprisals if they tried to remove them.
Most worrying for Pakistani officials is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—a militant group that renewed its pledge of allegiance to the Taliban after the fall of Kabul and that wants to overthrow the Pakistani state and replicate the Taliban’s emirate in the northwestern districts of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. The Taliban have freed hundreds of TTP operatives, including the group’s deputy leader, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, who was detained by Afghan authorities in 2013. Mohammad has since vowed to impose sharia in Pakistan.
The TTP has carried out as many as seventy attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, raising the specter of another deadly terrorist campaign similar to the one the group carried out in 2009–2014. Worried about the threat from the TTP, Pakistani officials have enlisted the Taliban’s help to negotiate a peace deal with the Pakistani militant group. Presumably to facilitate formal talks, Pakistan’s government offered amnesty if TTP leaders would disarm their fighters and accept the Pakistani constitution as the supreme law of the land—an offer the TTP has rejected on the grounds that there can be no dialogue with the Pakistani state unless the state fully implements sharia in the country.
While Pakistan still expects its Taliban allies to rein in the TTP, Taliban leaders have no pressing reason to alienate their TTP allies—a calculus that both exposes the Taliban to charges of betraying the jihadist project and risks dissension in its own ranks by bowing to Pakistan’s demands. Ultimately, Pakistan’s moderate Taliban narrative is unlikely to stick, because the Taliban are not interested in power sharing or in protecting human rights. They will most likely continue to rule in the only way they know how: repression.