On September 1st, 2021, the United States completely withdrew its forces from Afghanistan paving way for the Taliban to come back to power after nearly twenty years. This is seen as a diplomatic victory for Pakistan as the previous democratically established government in Afghanistan was close to India. However, the rise of the Taliban may not be all good for Pakistan as they come with their share of threats and problems. This article shall try to explain why the Pakistan-Taliban relationship may not be a smooth one going forward.
The History and Ideology of Taliban:
Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the Mujahid leaders who fought the Soviets, turned against each other. This caused a civil-war type of situation, with warlords practically ruling the country. The pro-communist Najibullah Government was overthrown, and Najibullah was forced to live in the internationally protected UN Compound. The early members of Taliban were students of Madrassas in Northern Pakistan who wanted to establish civil order in Afghanistan which had collapsed after the fall of the Afghan Government. The word Talib, in Pashto, means students. Taliban follows an ultra-conservative version of Islam and wants to implement a draconian interpretation of the Sharia, which includes a total ban on theatre, comedy, and free movement of women. A majority of Talibans are Pashtuns, who constitute approximately 40% of Afghanistan’s population.
Why Pakistan supports Taliban despite international criticism:
Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan is informally called “Taliban Khan”, for allegedly supporting the fall of the established government in Kabul. For decades, Pakistan’s actual Afghanistan policy has been different from what they project it to be. Pakistan was one of the only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government in Afghanistan back in 1996. Since the inception of the Taliban, Pakistan’s investigative agency—the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—has supplied arms and ammunition to the Taliban. Hospitals have been built to attend to Taliban militants injured in Afghanistan and their leaders own properties and have a secondary residence in Pakistan. What potential benefits does Pakistan see in a Taliban rule?
Firstly, a weak New Delhi in the region. A strong Indo-Afghan relationship may make Pakistan’s conflict with India two frontal. This combination also poses a threat to the expensive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the region. Second, the hardline Islamic ideology Taliban brings to them. Pakistan’s attempts to create a national identity on religious lines since its independence has not been successful, one example of which is Bangladesh. Pakistan thinks that Taliban can do some amount of social engineering and completely integrate the tribes like Pashtuns in the country by making religious identity more important than ethnic identity.
TTP, Pashtun nationalism and the role of Taliban:
Tehreek-I Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is a militant Pashtun group which intends to overthrow the Pakistan Government using terrorism. It is infamously known for the Peshawar Army School terror attack of 2014. What could become worrisome for Pakistan is a fresh revival of TTP once again, now that their ideological patron has returned to power in the neighborhood. The Afghan Taliban denies any connection to the TTP and has assured that Afghanistan soil will not be used against Pakistan. However, it has acted otherwise in the past few weeks. They have released over two thousand TTP militants and their top commanders like Maulvi Faqir Mohammed from prisons in Kandahar and Bagram.
Pashtuns have a complicated relationship with the state of Pakistan. This community is well represented in all spheres of life in the country, yet it feels subordinate in the system which is fundamentally Punjabi. One noted Pashtun activist movement is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). They have held demonstrations in various parts of the country accusing the Pakistani army of terrorising the Pashtun people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One of their slogans during a demonstration was “Ye jo Dehshat Gardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai”, meaning that ones in uniform are behind terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban has openly supported the protests called by PTM. Violent crackdown on these protestors by the Pakistani army (which is dominated by Punjabis), weakens the glue of a national identity based on religion and incites a sense of separatism.
To assume that the Pashtun identity is not very important to the Afghan Taliban may not be wise at this stage. The resistance movement, which is brewing in Panjshir, consists mainly of minorities like the Tajiks. Panjshir is one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and is located in the northeastern part of the country. Resistance leaders like Ahmad Shah Massoud and Amarullah Saleh are ethnic Tajiks. Effectively, it has now become Pashtun vs other tribes’ war in northern Afghanistan. Another interesting fact is that neither the established government nor the Taliban have accepted the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, also called the Durand Line. They believe in a common ideology of a Greater Afghanistan (sometimes also called Pashtunistan). This is a problem for Pakistan, because one of the four provinces of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a Pashtun majority state. This unexpected resistance in Panjshir led by minorities may make Pashtun identity important to Afghan Taliban and may become a potential source of disagreement and conflict with Pakistan.
Surprisingly, the Taliban has not given special assurance to Pakistan regarding the TTP. They have given a rather generic statement which they have been giving to other countries in the region—of “not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any country”.
As the title says, the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan is a double-edged sword for Pakistan. There is little evidence to suggest that the Afghan Taliban will play to the tunes of the ISI anymore, given that their mission of overthrowing the government and returning to power is now accomplished. Given how the Pakistan Taliban has been supportive to their Afghan counterparts, the latter may now want to reciprocate. The evidence to suggest this lies in the fact that the most-wanted militant by Pakistan was released as soon as Taliban captured power. Should there be a Pashtun identity crisis in Pakistan, we cannot take for granted that the Afghan Taliban shall remain silent or support Pakistan.
Sushameendra Balaji is a second-year student at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.