Is the Taliban takeover still in Pakistan's interest?
In recent weeks, the situation has been changing on an almost hourly basis: the Taliban has overrun one Afghan province after another, and managed to take Kabul with barely any resistance – much to the surprise of the major players. The Afghan security forces had all but been dissolved. A failure on this scale by the Afghan army, which had been built up and equipped over the past twenty years using billions of dollars, shocked all observers – and the Afghans themselves most of all. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the way clear for the radicals to seize power.
Although it is still impossible to predict the consequences of this development for the region, it is already clear that, alongside the Taliban, Pakistan is the second victor in this conflict. At least, for now; at the moment, it is difficult to assess the impact the Taliban’s takeover will have on Pakistani society. And this is the crux of the matter.
For several months now, members of the Afghan government have been accusing Pakistan of actively supporting the Taliban’s advance. At a regional conference in Uzbekistan, there was an unusually heated public exchange between the Afghan President Ghani and Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan. Khan was visibly angered by Ghani’s accusation that Pakistan was smuggling thousands of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. Khan assured him that his country had nothing to do with developments in Afghanistan and was interested in a peaceful solution to the conflict. After all, a civil war in a neighbouring country and a fresh influx of Afghan refugees would also destabilise Pakistan.
This assessment may be partly true, and Pakistan certainly hasn’t smuggled thousands of Taliban over the border, but there can be no denying that the Pakistani establishment maintains close relationships with the Taliban, though with a decreasing level of influence. The Taliban’s invasion of Kabul also sees a “pro-Pakistan” regime seizing power for the first time in twenty years. And unlike that earlier period, this time other actors from the region besides Pakistan are actively helping to shape a post-American Afghanistan.
The Taliban and neighbouring states
Since the USA began negotiating directly with the Taliban and announced its withdrawal, it has been clear even to the greatest sceptics that the Taliban is a major player in Afghanistan, and that the conflict cannot be resolved by military means.
A degree of stability in Afghanistan is in the interest of all its neighbouring states, to prevent the conflict from spilling over into their own territory. Alongside Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia are therefore all attempting to fill the power vacuum. In recent months, representatives of the Taliban have been conducting bilateral negotiations with these countries, and seem to have reached a level of agreement on the recognition of their regime.
China, for instance, is keen to make its neighbour Afghanistan an important transit country in its "Belt and Road Initiative". A stable government, even one formed by the radical Taliban, would make it easier for China to implement this infrastructure project. China would also like a guarantee from the Taliban that no Uighur resistance fighters from Xinjiang province, which lies on the border with Afghanistan, will be able to establish themselves on Afghan soil.
Russia’s central concern, meanwhile, is the security situation in central Asia and the suppression of local terrorist groups. Moscow fears the destabilisation of the central Asian republics, and is therefore holding direct talks with the Taliban, even though Moscow officially classes the group as terrorists themselves. The situation with Iran is similar; it is combatting Sunni terrorist organisations in the east of the country, and wants to prevent IS from gaining a stronger foothold in Afghanistan. Iran also sees itself as a protective power for the Afghan Shias, and is therefore making every effort to guarantee their safety.
For Pakistan, several geopolitical factors are simultaneously in play: Islamabad wants the Taliban to keep its Pakistani offshoot TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) in check, and prevent it from carrying out attacks from Afghanistan. The Pakistani army was, after all, only able to drive the TTP out of the tribal border regions following several military operations that incurred heavy losses. A return of the TTP would be disastrous for the country’s security situation.
Separatists from the Pakistani province of Baluchistan have also found sanctuary in Afghanistan, and are operating from there with relative freedom. Attacks by Baluchistani militant groups are the greatest threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious project through which Islamabad and Beijing aim to co-operate more effectively on transport and energy infrastructure, including transit routes through Afghanistan. The ports of Gwadar and Karachi would provide a direct link to global markets. And all of this would be easier to implement under the Taliban.
But the most important factor for Pakistan is that, with the Taliban in power, India’s influence in Afghanistan is being largely suppressed. Over recent years, India has managed to extend its influence considerably through investment and projects, which Islamabad has always eyed with mistrust. The security of the western border plays a central role in Pakistan’s security doctrine. An enemy on its western flank would be tantamount to encirclement. And avoiding this situation is a top priority in Islamabad’s corridors of power.
Pakistan’s support has also benefitted the Taliban, even though many of their leaders were arrested in Pakistan after 2001. Taliban cadres who had fled the country with their families found refuge in Pakistan, in Quetta or Karachi. There was always a lively exchange between the Pakistani establishment and the Taliban’s leadership, through which Pakistan was able to pressure the Taliban leaders into sitting down at a negotiating table with the Americans. Islamabad’s influence on the group may have waned, but both sides continue to profit from one another.
Fears of radicalisation in Pakistan
But there is also another point of view in Pakistan: now that the Taliban has seized power, many fear a creeping radicalisation in their own society. Religious political parties and elements of the establishment in Pakistan are openly sympathetic towards the Taliban. They all regard the movement’s victory as confirmation of their policies. Fazal ur-Rahman, for example, the leader of the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), congratulated the leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, on his victory.
Ideologically, the Taliban and the JUI both subscribe to the puritanical Deobandi school of thought. The Deobandi movement considers itself to be on the ascendent and hopes to gain yet more influence – in particular in its rivalry with the orthodox Sunni Barelvi movement. Tensions between the two Sunni schools of thought may well increase in the future. Religious minorities and liberal forces already fear increasing reprisals if the significance of the radical forces grows in society as a whole.
Pakistan might then be plagued by another spiral of violence, as it was at the start of the 2000s. The first signs of this are already in evidence: the TTP, the Taliban’s Pakistani offshoot which, it was thought, had been largely quashed, reared its head again in early 2021 with a series of dramatic attacks. In April, the group carried out an attack on the heavily-guarded Serena Hotel in Quetta, aimed at the Chinese ambassador. Whether the Taliban can really control the TTP is highly questionable, when you consider the group’s loose organisational structure.
It is still too early for a reliable prognosis of the effects. The next few months will therefore remain tense. But one thing is clear: the spirits of radicalism have returned once more to a region already plagued by instability.
© Qantara.de 2021
Mohammad Luqman gained a degree in Islamic Studies from the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Marburg, where his research focused on Islam in South Asia. He is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Frankfurt on the relationship between religion and nationalism in Pakistan.
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