Disillusioned with the Taliban, Pakistan reverses its four-decade Afghan policy
In August 2021, soon after US forces withdrew completely from Afghanistan, Imran Khan, who was then Pakistan's prime minister, felicitated the Taliban for "breaking the chains of slavery." Faiz Hammed, at the time the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's main intelligence agency, visited Kabul and told the media that "everything will be okay." He was assuring the people of Pakistan that the Taliban's victory and return to power in Afghanistan would help Pakistan curb religious and nationalist militancy, such as that arising out of the Baloch separatist movement. In November 2023, however, Pakistan's caretaker prime minister, Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, claimed that the surge of terrorism in Pakistan after 2021 was linked to the Afghan Taliban's continued support for groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
While the Afghan Taliban denies Pakistan's claims, Kakar's statement reflects the unexpected souring of relations between the two countries. These tensions are at the heart of Pakistan's decision to deport millions of Afghans living in Pakistan since the 1980s, some of whom arrived as refugees and others who were born in Pakistan. Early this October, the Pakistan government issued an ultimatum to all undocumented foreigners to leave Pakistan by 1 November, targeting mainly Afghan migrants. This was widely seen as a tit-for-tat policy decision motivated by Islamabad's desire to put additional economic burden on Kabul due to the latter's seeming inability and unwillingness to tackle and eliminate the TTP, the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) and numerous Baloch separatist outfits, all of which have had Taliban support.
The TTP has carried out several attacks in Pakistan over the last couple of years, just like the IS-K, whose highly sophisticated attacks have included one that killed 54 people in July 2023. Baloch separatist groups, active in the long-running insurgency against Pakistan's rule in Balochistan, have historically found sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. Policymakers in Pakistan seem to believe that Afghanistan has become more welcoming to anti-Pakistan elements and squarely blame the Taliban for this.
One official from Pakistan's interior ministry told me, on condition of anonymity, "All Afghanistan-based groups are targeting Pakistan only. The IS-K attacked China and Russia once only in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has been attacked both inside Afghanistan and within its own borders since the US withdrawal." The official was referring to attacks inside Pakistan as well as on Pakistan's embassy in Kabul in December 2022, for which the IS-K took responsibility. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the ministry of foreign affairs in Kabul in January 2023, on a day when a Chinese delegation was to hold talks with the Taliban in the area. Earlier, in September 2022, it had carried out a suicide attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul, killing two Russian diplomats. The official said that "this has become possible because, and we have reasons to believe, the Afghan networks based in Pakistan" – meaning Afghan refugees – "act as channels for terror groups to infiltrate and carry out attacks … Their agenda is to make the border irrelevant and control Pakistani territory."
The border the official was referring to is the Durand Line, which has been a bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan since Pakistan's creation in 1947. It was drawn as a permanent border between Afghanistan and the British Raj in 1893. Successive Afghan governments rejected the border as an artificial construction of the British colonial government in India. Pakistan has tried to create a greater physical presence and a more demarcated border along the Durand Line, but Afghanistan has resisted these efforts and the border remains extremely porous.
The issue of the border took a back seat during the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s, in which Pakistan, along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, helped the Afghans. Pakistan accepted millions of Afghan refugees during that conflict, and more refugees poured into Pakistan after the start of the US-led "War on Terror" in 2001. These refugees were far from a burden on Pakistan, as the country's officials now claim. The political scientist Sanaa Alimia has documented how these refugees helped build local economies and cities. The other benefit to Islamabad in playing host to Afghans was the millions of dollars it received in aid from the United States and the international community to provide for the refugees.
Pakistan had supported the Taliban since the group emerged in 1994 as a counter to India's influence in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan, under the military rule of Pervez Musharraf became an ally to the United States in its 'War on Terror.' However, Pakistan was thought to be covertly helping the Taliban through the ISI even during this period. Pakistan's support to the Taliban continued even with subsequent civilian-led governments in Islamabad because of the Pakistani military's dominance in foreign and national-security policies. This led the former US president Donald Trump to blame Pakistan for his country's failure in Afghanistan.
To rein in the Taliban, Pakistan must see the Taliban for what it is: an Islamist militant group that is part of a global extremist network which threatens not only Pakistan but also other states in the region.
Once the US left Afghanistan in 2021, Islamabad did not expect the Taliban to contradict and challenge it. The Taliban's behaviour has shaken Islamabad's confidence in Afghanistan providing "strategic depth" for Pakistan in case of a land invasion by India – that is, in being a safe place for Pakistan to relocate its military forces in the event of war with India. For that plan to work, Pakistan needs a friendly regime in Afghanistan. This has been a major factor in all of Pakistan's actions in Afghanistan in recent decades – from helping the Taliban win the civil war in Afghanistan the 1990s and first take power in Kabul to helping it return to power in 2021.
Pakistan has been relying on the Taliban controlling Afghanistan and being an ally sensitive to Pakistan's interests. But the Taliban's reluctance to eliminate the TTP and Baloch insurgent groups has been a rude awakening for many in Islamabad, especially as these group's increasing aggression on Pakistani soil becomes an ever larger problem for the government and the military establishment. Despite taking over the Afghan government, the Taliban is still essentially an Islamist militant group. Pakistan is now realising that the Taliban is more likely to stay true to its Islamist roots and protect other Islamist groups than to respect its neighbours' interests. The Taliban has hardly any reason to act against the TTP, which helped it in the fight against NATO and Afghan republican forces before its victory in 2021, and which is founded on a shared ideology. The TTP's very name is inspired by the full name of the Afghan Taliban – the Tehrik-i-Taliban Afghanistan.
In 2020, as part of talks with the United States, the Taliban signed the Doha Accord, agreeing not to allow any terror group to use Afghan territory. However, in 2021, it released hundreds of TTP fighters and commanders from Afghan prisons, allowing the group to reunite and rally. Pakistan's subsequent and repeated calls for action against the TTP have only resulted in the Taliban denouncing the terms of the Doha Pact that bound it to act against any anti-Pakistan groups. In July this year, when the Pakistan Army's media wing denounced the Taliban for providing safe havens for the TTP in Afghanistan and asked it to act in accordance with the Doha Accord, a Taliban spokesperson told BBC Pashto,"It was a document signed between us and the US" – implying that Pakistan had no right to make demands under the agreement.
Even as the Taliban refused to act against the TTP it facilitated Pakistan's so-called peace talks with the Islamist outfit. During these talks, the TTP demanded that Pakistan remove the majority of its military presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah province on the border with Afghanistan, and reverse the 2018 constitutional merger with the rest of Pakistan of what were earlier the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Such a move would, in effect, bring the area under the TTP's exclusive control. These talks revealed how the Taliban was trying, via the TTP, to extend its Islamic Emirate into Pakistani territories and practically erase the Durand Line as a border.
Pakistan rejected these demands, and the surge in TTP attacks followed. In August 2023, Pakistan suffered 99 terror attacks – the highest number in a single month since November 2014. This September, the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad released a report which showed that there had already been 19 percent more deaths in terror attacks in 2023 compared to 2022. "Pakistan's security forces lost at least 386 personnel with 36 percent of fatalities, including 137 army and 208 police personnel, in the first nine months of the year marking an eight-year high," the report said. This trend has continued into October and November.
Would Pakistan still like to felicitate the Taliban for breaking the chains of slavery? Will it be willing to consider and learn from the drastic failure of its extremely flawed policy of supporting Islamist militant groups over the decades, in effect fattening the same beast that now wants to destroy it? To rein in the Taliban, Pakistan must see the Taliban for what it is: an Islamist militant group that is part of a global extremist network which threatens not only Pakistan but also other states in the region, including China and Russia – both of which retain ties to the Taliban. With the Taliban now the recognised authority in Afghanistan, the best Pakistan can do is to coordinate with China and Russia to pressure the Taliban to withdraw its support to other militant groups. Its current policy of punishing Afghans in Pakistan through deportation is not only creating one of the worst humanitarian crises the region has seen but also perversely favouring the TTP, which could look for recruits among those whom Pakistan is now treating so callously.