Pakistan’s close relationship with the Taliban is central to solving crisis in Afghanistan because it can get the group to the negotiating table

by Ayesha Siddiqa

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan plummeted the country into the disarray that it is currently experiencing. Though the US is engaged in negotiations with the Taliban to conclude a peace deal that would allow American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, the crisis is far from resolved.

Pakistan’s close relationship with the Taliban, in particular, is considered central to solving the current situation in Afghanistan. Though it is not the only regional state that has links with the Taliban, it is viewed by the US as the most important in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table for talks to end the 18 years of war. This is as the country’s military has old links with the Afghan militia dating back to the birth of the group during the mid-1990s.

Unpacking Pakistan’s Approach

There are number of key reasons why the Pakistani military continues to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. First, Islamabad views the Afghan Taliban as the legitimate representatives of a large proportion of Afghanistan’s Pashtun-majority population.

Second, the Pakistani military is suspicious of unfriendly elements controlling Kabul. This has forced it to invest primarily in the ideological militia of a specified kind, as the men in uniform believe that — irrespective of their internal differences — the Taliban will help Pakistan’s broader national security interests. This would make a future Taliban government in Afghanistan different from a Northern Alliance-led political arrangement. This situation is a reminder of a case of foreign policy objectives guiding domestic politics of the state.

Next to this, Pakistan’s security establishment has perhaps drawn lessons from its dealings with other militant groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). Based in Pakistan and accused by India of involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, the militant organisation's leadership comes from the largest Pakistani province Punjab and has remained on the right side of the state. This is as LeT practises a particular model of violent extremism, where jihad is exported to foreign territories, but Sharia is not proselytised inside the country. While the demands for the implementation of Sharia or the interpretation of Sharia are issues on which there are similarities between the LeT and Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) or even Al-Qaeda. The key point of difference is that supporting LeT and, according to Pakistan’s military, the Taliban, is seen as still securing domestic security. This model does have its limitations as the operational strategy may be relatively safe, but the ideology is not.

No Central Control

There are seemingly several inconsistencies in the Pakistani military’s approach to the Taliban. Particularly relevant is that, unlike its heydays during the 1990s when the Taliban in Afghanistan were under the central control of its leader Mullah Omar, the militia is now more of a network with various leaders. This means that its violence is difficult to control and that it is not easy for a state actor to determine who to talk to. This has resulted in Pakistan itself being a victim of attacks launched by groups based in its territory that were either part of the more extensive Taliban network or had a partnership with it. These losses, however, have not caused Pakistan’s military to waver from supporting the Taliban or its inclusion in Afghan politics.

Islamic State of Khorasan

Another flaw in the Pakistani’s military approach is that it does not take into account internal challenges for the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are not only divided among themselves, but also have to deal with other militias such as Walayat–e–Khorasan, also known as the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K). Present in almost 30 districts in Afghanistan, particularly in the eastern areas like Nangarhar and Kunar, the IS-K is better funded and has a more cohesive structure than the Taliban. Since its formation in Afghanistan in 2014, the IS-K has drawn on the human resource of the Taliban and has, at times, taken an ideologically harder and confrontational position against the Taliban.

Meaning that, even if the Taliban could organise themselves into a more centralised and cohesive structure, it would find it difficult to push back the IS-K. As detailed in my review essay for International Affairs, this is largely due to the resourcefulness of the latter, but also because of the ideological relevance of the organisation. This is as, in Islamic theology, the area of Khorasan — that supposedly comprises Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India — is particularly significant because it is the source of an army that would fight all non-Muslims and infidels.

Opposition To The Military’s Approach

This demonstrates the difficult position the Taliban is in in Afghanistan and the problematic nature of the Pakistani military’s unwavering support of the group. In the past year, the military’s approach has come under severe criticism from many of the people living in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This territory has, since the war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and later the ‘war on terror’, turned into a hideout for the militant group. Currently, an indigenous movement headed by young leaders — the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (movement for the protection of Pashtun), popularly known as PTM — from the area is demanding that the military abstains from policies that cost people their lives. However, Pakistan’s military is bent on presenting the PTM as against national interests and an extension of a historical, ethnic separatist movement, despite it being neither a secessionist movement nor having any demands against the state. Meanwhile, the army government communications headquarters in Pakistan has continued to give access to various Taliban groups, causing ordinary people to fall victim to land mines, killings by both the militants and security forces and to abduction and disappearances.

Despite the various problems that the Pakistani military’s support for the Taliban has created, they appear steadfast in their support of the organisation due to the reasons detailed above and their perception that the Taliban is aligned with Pakistan’s interests. If any lessons are to be drawn from the over 30 years of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban, it is that militias cannot be allowed to fill the political space created by the weakening of the state. The present Pashtun movement acts as a bulwark against an aggressive approach that, in the future, would bring more significant harm to the stability of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia in general.