NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 08

Pakistan’s long support to Afghan Taliban boomerangs

It appears that Pakistan decades’ long expectations of the Taliban to have a friendly government in Afghanistan at last have dashed to the ground. Pakistan, in order to have a friendly government in Afghanistan, had pinned great hopes on the strongest militia for more than 25 years. However, after usurping power in Afghanistan for the second time in a whirlwind and swashbuckling action in August 2021 to capture Kabul, the Taliban have taken several anti-Pakistan measures.

The Taliban’s anti-Pakistan steps in around one and a half years of rule suggest that the militia is more an anti-Pakistan than a pro-Pakistan group. Today, Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan has become more insecure than its eastern border with arch-rival India. Pakistan and India have fought four wars since both got independence from British rule in 1947. However, there has never been a war between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, border skirmishes and momentary cross-border attacks have marked the relations between Islamabad and Kabul. But today Pakistan is threatening Afghanistan with an imminent attack if the Taliban regime is unable to control their country-based Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP has been launching deadly attacks inside Pakistan since its latest end of ceasefire in November 2022. The groups, since its emergence in 2007, wreaked havoc in Pakistan through its terrorist and militant attacks resulting in around 70, 000 deaths of Pakistanis including civilians and security personnel and inflicted damages on the country to the tune of more than $120 billion plus incalculable psychological problems among Pakistanis.

The Afghan Taliban’s anti-Pakistan measures since their second coming to power in 2021 include nurturing TTP militants, refusing to recognize the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, offers for deep defence-related relations with Pakistan’s arch-rival India and above all continual cross-border attacks including mortar and artillery shelling on the Pakistan side of the border resulting in heavy casualties. All these anti-Pakistan steps have been feeding each other. The Taliban, one must notice, are basically a militant movement which came to power not through a political process but through an armed struggle first in 1996 and then in 2021. For the first time when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they had defeated a former Mujahideen regime led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his close confidant, Ahmed Shah Masud. Both Rabbani and Masud then had been engaged in a deadly civil war with the regime of Prime Minister Gulbaddin Hikmatyar. In those years of civil war in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged in the leadership of former Mujahideen fighter, Mullah Omar, and comprised Afghan students from seminaries established during the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance war of the 1980s. The Taliban inflicted defeat after defeat on Rabbani-Masud troops. Ironically, it was Pakistan that allegedly facilitated their emergence and capture of Afghanistan. Islamabad then under the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gave all-out support to the Taliban in a hope that as most of them got education and lived in Pakistan they may consider the latter their second home and once in power would behave exceptionally friendly towards Pakistan. However, the Taliban during their first stint in power did not extend a friendly hand towards Islamabad. Even they refused to accept the finality of the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and started subscribing to the traditional Afghan claims of considering the border as disputed.

But when the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces occupied Afghanistan in the aftermath of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in 2001 and forced the Taliban regime to flee, again it was Pakistan which came to their rescue. After installing a new Constitution and a government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan in 2002, the US and Western allies took punitive actions against the Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban, whose almost all fighters shifted to Pakistan tribal areas, then known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It was the security establishment that always controlled Pakistan’s Afghan policy decision to help the Taliban regroup to help it become a potent force to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan in case Western troops leave. At the same time, Pakistan helped America overcome the Al Qaeda threat by helping it capture most of top leaders of the global terrorist network from Pakistan, for instance, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in America from the garrison city of Rawalpindi. The Taliban kept on fighting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which numbered 300,000 and were backed by NATO forces, which at their height reached 110,000 troops. In fact, it was the presence of US-NATO forces that kept the Taliban at bay from overcoming the ANSF and capturing power in Afghanistan. However, more than the Taliban valor it had been Pakistan’s critical logistics, financial and other support which helped them stay put. But as America under President Donald Trump realized the futility of the presence of its troops in Afghanistan for such a long time of two decades, which also became the longest American war outside the mainland, they started negotiating with the Taliban resulting in the February 2020 peace agreement between Washington and the Taliban. Noticeably, it was also Pakistan that prodded the Taliban to negotiate with the US and give up their recalcitrant stand not to talk as long as American-Western troops remained on Afghan soil. Islamabad also convinced the Americans that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were two different realities and the former had nothing to do with terrorism in the US. Thus, Islamabad singlehandedly helped the Taliban to return to power in 2021. Therefore, Pakistan had great hopes of the Taliban that after assuming the saddle in Kabul they would ensure security of Pakistan’s western border and look after Pakistan’s vital interests.

However, since returning to power the Taliban have assumed an increasingly anti-Pakistan stance. This time not only the Taliban have questioned the finality of the international border but also raised irredentist claims on Pakistani territory. Instead of denying space and hideouts to Pakistan militant and terrorist groups, like the TTP, the Taliban have instead helped the defeated TTP to resurge. Last but not the least, instead of not inviting India to have strong stakes in Afghanistan at the altar of Pakistan, they have offered India to train their troops. This is really a difficult situation for Pakistan and its more than two decades of Afghan policy, whose entire focus has been on support to the Taliban, which has vanished into thin air.