For years, Pakistan defended its pro-Taliban policy as a bulwark against Pashtun nationalism and the perceived threat of Indian encirclement. For that purpose, Taliban were sponsored to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan.
Now that the United States and the West have ended the 20-year war leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban, Pakistan is confronted with a more serious challenge involving local and transnational jihadists.
A Taliban emirate across the border will prove a morale boost for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the violent group that wages ‘jihad’ for an Islamist system in Pakistan. Other jihadists, including the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the ethnic Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) will also draw inspiration.
Pakistan is Hesitating
Notwithstanding the euphoria in Pakistani media, the risks are clear and visible, which is why observers see a degree of hesitation in Pakistan’s policy circles. Recognising the Islamic Emirates or staying away till others do so — both have consequences.
“Don’t worry about that, everything will be okay,” was the quick reply with a wide smile from Pakistan’s ISI chief Lieutenant Gen. Faiz Hameed when a journalist caught him, apparently unguarded, on camera in a Kabul hotel upon his unscheduled arrival in the city on September 4.
The hesitation is also visible from numerous statements of top Pakistani officials. In July, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was quoted as saying that the “Taliban have changed” and calling them “smart” and “savvy”. The army and the ISI chiefs told an off-the-record briefing that Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are “two faces of the same coin”. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad called the militia a “new, civilised Taliban”, and the National Security Advisor (NSA) Moeed Yousuf told a news conference in Washington that Pakistan “would not accept a forceful takeover” in Afghanistan.
Risks and Consequences
In the past, Pakistan has been complaining about the United States’ “do more” demand regarding Afghanistan. In their regular rejoinders, the Pakistani leadership say their country had suffered in terms of blood and money and has been a victim of terrorism.
The American camp, however, viewed this as a double game by their “non-NATO ally” which, analysts believe, has mastered the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds involving the Afghan turf.
However, Pakistan’s hard moment came when the country’s “all-weather friend”, China, also hinted at “do more” in the aftermath of an attack in mid-July that killed nine Chinese engineers.
In a meeting with top Pakistani officials, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as saying that “China and Pakistan will jointly combat terrorism, push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line with terrorism … and prevent Afghanistan from falling again into being a hotbed for terrorism.” This was construed as a soft warning for serious action.
The July attack on Chinese engineers, which investigators suspect was jointly planned by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which the Chinese call Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was one direct outcome of what is happening in Afghanistan on the militancy front.
China Needs a Safe Environment
Although the Afghan Taliban never posed a direct threat to China, their 20-year insurgency in Afghanistan has provided safe havens to TTP, TIP et al, who re-emerged in their Afghan sanctuary after expulsion from the Waziristan tribal region in mid-2014.
Notwithstanding Pakistan’s allegations regarding the Indian hand behind the TTP and Baloch separatists, the Afghan Taliban cannot be exonerated because they are closely allied with militant groups who claim responsibility for attacks inside Pakistan.
If the Afghan Taliban can defeat Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISK-P) in Afghanistan’s east, why not the TTP? Quite understandably, the Taliban’s stern action against the ISK-P in eastern Afghanistan was based on their rivalry as much as their silence over the presence of TTP in the same region validates an undeclared alliance. The Taliban and the TTP relationship is also reflected in one recent report by the United Nations.
China needs a safer security environment to continue with its ambitious investment projects in Pakistan for an extension to Afghanistan at a later stage. To help mitigate China’s concerns, Pakistan has to act, be that the TIP (ETIM), as mentioned in the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement, TTP, or the Afghan Taliban.
The Once Naïve Taliban Isn’t So Anymore
At the same time, notwithstanding their converging interests, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is also not as easygoing as is generally believed to be. The once naïve Taliban leadership is cognisant of the motives of their Pakistani handlers and their strategic and foreign policy in lending support to the Taliban.
At least two people who visited Doha during the past few months and spoke to a few lower and mid-ranking Taliban representatives observed that “the Taliban leadership is doubtful of Pakistan as much as Pakistanis are about the Taliban”.
However, while Pakistan wants the Taliban on its side to keep India out of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not ready to arm-twist the TTP, which they consider a useful asset in terms of future leverage over the Pakistanis.
On the international front, pressure is mounting on Pakistan to nudge, push or force the Taliban for an inclusive government. In doing so, the Taliban leadership fears opposition from the hardliners in their ranks who fought for 20 years, carrying the ideal of a utopian medieval state in their heads as envisioned by their one-eyed founder Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Pakistan, meanwhile, risks its ties with the Taliban by using pressure to persuade the latter for a government having representatives of all ethnicities. Not doing so may cost Pakistan its relationship with the West.
Defining Taliban’s ‘Inclusive’ Government
Notwithstanding the wheeling and dealing in Kabul, the Taliban leadership have already said that there is no place for those who remained part of the previous governments. The Taliban’s definition of an “inclusive” set-up is to pick Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen Taliban for official ranks.
Keeping aside Pakistan Foreign Minister’s remarks about the Taliban being “smart” and “savvy”, another hardliner regime in Kabul may prove a nightmare for Pakistan. The 90s’ Taliban, when dislodged in 2001, resulted in the emergence of a TTP emirate in Pakistan’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Encouraged by the Taliban victory, the TTP has already amplified attacks in Pakistan’s north. Another pariah regime in Kabul will have serious consequences for Pakistan’s unbalanced economy, its poor international image, and a society divided on ethnic and sectarian lines.
(The writer is an analyst keeping an eye on security and politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)