NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 3

Strained relations: A reassessment of Pakistan’s Afghan policy

Relations between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban-controlled Afghanistan have sharply deteriorated. Islamabad has explicitly conveyed that Kabul must choose between maintaining friendly ties with Pakistan or continuing to host and protect the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This ultimatum places Afghanistan in a position where it must decide between aligning with Pakistan or supporting militant elements.

The TTP, responsible for waging a war against the Pakistani state since its inception in 2007, faced significant military operations following the heinous school attack in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. Subsequently, a considerable portion of the TTP leadership and network relocated to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the TTP has been providing support to the Afghan Taliban, aiding their efforts against the now-disbanded Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the US-led international forces.

Caretaker Pakistan Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar recently issued a strong call for the Afghan Taliban to decide whether they will take action against terrorists launching attacks in Pakistan or surrender them to Islamabad. Notably, terrorist activities in Pakistan surged by 79% in the first half of 2023, with many attributed to or claimed by the TTP. Pakistan holds the Kabul regime responsible for this increase in terrorism, urging the Taliban to cease cross-border attacks and prevent the use of Afghan soil against Pakistan.

Caretaker PM Kakar has criticized the interim Taliban administration for its perceived inaction against terrorism and emphasized the necessity for decisive measures. Of particular significance is Pakistan’s assertion, as voiced by Kakar, that the Afghan Taliban regime is aware of the hideouts of the banned TTP in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s firm stance suggests that its relations with the Afghan Taliban regime have reached an unprecedented low. Islamabad has unequivocally stated that Afghan authorities are aware of TTP hideouts on Afghan soil, and their inaction is part of a deliberate policy. This underscores a shift in Pakistan’s approach, signaling that state interests must take precedence over appeasement. The TTP has been a formidable adversary for the past 15 years, and any country supporting it is viewed as, at the very least, unfriendly if not an outright enemy of Pakistan.

Significantly, the Afghan Taliban’s hosting and nurturing of the TTP on Afghan soil align with the group’s vested interests. The TTP, by supporting the Afghan Taliban in their conflicts against Afghan state forces, militant rivals, and international forces within Afghanistan, holds strategic value for the Afghan Taliban. Despite historically supporting the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan now finds itself at odds with the group due to its continued association with the TTP. Pakistan had relied on the Afghan Taliban to establish a friendly regime in Kabul, but recent developments indicate a growing rift between the two entities.

Since the Afghan Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan’s long-cherished hope that the return of the Taliban would alleviate animosity emanating from Afghanistan toward Islamabad has proven unsuccessful. This unfortunate outcome underscores a critical lesson: Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan, particularly its reliance on the Taliban to achieve its objectives, has failed. A thorough reassessment of this policy is imperative to formulate a more viable approach. Pakistan’s expectation that the Afghan Taliban would help address security threats from its western neighbor has also been dashed. Relying on a militant non-state actor is inherently flawed, as such groups, however seemingly friendly, may eventually turn against their benefactors.

The Afghan Taliban’s support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is further motivated by historical Afghan national irredentist claims on Pakistani Pashtun-dominated territory. Lacking political legitimacy within Afghanistan and having seized power through force rather than democratic means, the Afghan Taliban seeks to garner public support by stoking anti-Pakistan sentiments. This strategy has prompted Pakistan to reconsider its Afghanistan policy, a step that, though belated, is necessary.

The Afghan Taliban’s support for the TTP, hosting and nurturing them inside Afghanistan, appears to be a strategy to use them against Pakistan and launch a separatist Pashtun nationalist movement. This poses a serious threat, and Pakistani decision-makers may not have given sufficient attention to this aspect of the Afghan Taliban’s support for the TTP. It is not merely a tactic to keep Pakistan under pressure but a potential effort to gain international favors by leveraging this support.

As Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban regime have deteriorated, the latter’s prospects for international recognition face a significant setback. Pakistan, which was expected to be a likely state to recognize the Taliban regime, is now unlikely to do so given the strained relations. This, in turn, could discourage other states from extending diplomatic recognition to the militant group, exacerbating the challenges faced by the Taliban regime. The Afghan Taliban now faces a crucial choice: either to align with the TTP against Pakistan or to renounce the terrorist group. This decision will test the leadership’s acumen, but given the Taliban’s militant nature and lack of political credentials, it is anticipated that they may opt for another militant-terrorist group rather than demonstrating statesmanship and building solid relations with Pakistan, which are crucial for Afghanistan’s stability.