The Pakistan Taliban nexus and implications for India
How will Pakistan Afghanistan relationship evolve
- The story: The rise of Taliban in Afghanistan heralds the arrival of "AfPAk", a hyphenation that Pakistan may not hate anymore. Experts say the Taliban victory could not have come without active assistance from Pakistan.
- A long relationship: Pakistan has had a long run with the Taliban, from birthing it in 1994, supporting its first takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, to sheltering the fighters and leaders in the aftermath of the post-9/11 US invasion. All the while, it fooled America it was part of the "war on terror".
- Imprisoning the founder: Through all these years 2002-2018, the Pakistan security establishment pushed for talks with the Taliban. But as the long incarceration of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a Pakistani prison showed, Pakistan did not want the Taliban to take the decision of talking to the Afghan government or the US without its assent.
- Baradar had made the mistake of reaching out to Hamid Karzai independently, during the latter’s presidency.
- When Trump made it clear it was serious about talks with the Taliban to achieve the objective of a troops pullout from Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army and the ISI delivered the Taliban leadership to the talks table, and the Afghan government was excluded.
- Baradar, who had been jailed at the start of 2010, was released to lead the Taliban side in the talks in 2018.
- Fast victory: A reason for the Taliban’s swift advance was the ease with which they overpowered the Afghan security forces, its leadership demoralised by the unseemly haste of the US troops withdrawal. Afghan’s deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh and other members of the Ashraf Ghani government also alleged the Pakistan Army’s Special Forces and the ISI were guiding the Taliban.
- Safe haven: Pakistan’s undeniable contribution has been in providing the Taliban shelter on its territory even as the world expected it to put pressure on the Taliban to arrive at a negotiated political power sharing deal with Ghani’s government. The safe havens had existed from virtually the start of the US “war on terror” in 2001. The US was aware of this, but because its need for Pakistan as a logistics back end for the war in Afghanistan was greater, it did not push the Pakistan military sufficiently to act against these safe havens.
- While the political leadership of the Taliban camped in the Balochistan capital of Quetta, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in general, and South and North Waziristan became the revolving door for fighters of Afghan Taliban, and its associated group the Haqqani Network, along with al-Qaeda and a gaggle of other jihadists. Pakistani Army did nothing.
- In the latest fighting that took Taliban all the way to Kabul, the same safe havens in Pakistan were used to launch their attacks in Afghanistan.
- Afghan Taliban wounded in the fighting in July '21 were being treated in hospitals in Pakistan, and that the bodies of those killed are sometimes brought to be buried in Pakistan where their families live.
- Why support the Taliban: Pakistan viewed the Taliban as serving a two-fold purpose: first, a Taliban regime in Kabul and its umbilical connection with Pakistan would ensure the Pakistan military a free pass over Afghanistan, territory that it has coveted for “strategic depth” in its enmity with India, while ensuring Pakistan agency over Afghan routes into Central Asia.
- Since 2001, Indian involvement in development activities in Afghanistan, and its increased diplomatic presence, were disliked a lot by Pakistan
- (b) It alleged “encirclement” by India. Post-2004, Afghan governments, whether headed by Karzai or Ghani, were not shy of saying out loud that Pakistan was sheltering the same militants it claimed to be fighting.
- (c) In response to Pakistan’s denial of a land route to India for trade with Afghanistan, New Delhi began developing the Chabahar port in Iran, planned with a planned trade corridor via rail to the Iranian border with Afghanistan at Zaranj, with the India-built Zaranj-Delaram highway providing connections to the heart of Afghanistan. This route too may close now.
- The Pashtun angle: The Taliban were also an Islamist weapon against Pashtun identity and nationalism, which had taken a life of its own around the time of India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan. Quelled at the time, it rose once again recently in Pakistan in the form of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), triggering a heavy-handed response from the Pakistan military. The Afghanistan government openly courted the PTM as they saw it as a political counter to the Taliban. The Taliban describe themselves as a “Pashtun nationalist force”, the true and political representative of the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, but their extremist Islamist beliefs and their continuing links with al-Qaeda (as documented in a UN report earlier this year) and other global and regional jihadist groups make that claim questionable.
- Indian situation: While India will lose influence in Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan relationship will acquire one more layer of difficulty due to the Taliban comeback. Memories of the IC 814 hijack, and the role of the Taliban in ensuring that the hijackers got their way as the plane was parked in Kandahar, are still fresh in the minds of Indians. The Haqqani Network, closely allied to both the ISI and the Taliban, is blamed by the US and India for the deadly attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that claimed lives. Finally, India-focused jihadi tanzeem such as LeT and JeM may find new safe havens in Afghanistan, and save Pakistan from the FATF's lens.