Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Pakistan – Taliban relations: From Strategic Depth to Strategic Menace

By Ali Ahmad

When Taliban ousted U.S.-backed government and seized power in Afghanistan on the 15th of August, 2021, Pakistan was one of the few countries to applaud the Taliban takeover. Intelligence Chief of Pakistan was personally there in Kabul to celebrate this takeover and showing the world that it is Pakistan which would be gateway for access to Taliban. Pakistan, being supported Taliban with arms, ammunitions and safe haven during their 20-year insurgency against the West and the Afghan government, believed that it was time for Taliban to reciprocate. With this expectation, Imran Khan, the country’s former prime minister, joined other Pakistani elites in praising the Taliban’s victory and stating that the Taliban had broken the “shackles of slavery.”  

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has always attempted to install a friendly government in Afghanistan that would further the interests of Pakistan especially using Afghan soil to train their fighters who would be deployed in Kashmir theatre. It also wanted the ruling dispensation in Afghan to turn a blind eye to the Pakistan’s action in implementing the Durand Line, occupying the sovereign territories of Afghanistan.   

The main factors influencing Pakistan’s policy toward its neighbors since partition have been its concern with looking for a “Muslim Space” in India’s Jammu and Kashmir and a strategic depth across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. With influence over India not possible, Pakistan’s only possible option was to have a friendly neighbor on their western side. Pakistan used the religiously motivated groups as a tool to both achieve this option and also to keep the terror threat active in Kashmir by ensuring endless supply of foreign fighters to Indian side of Kashmir. With Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan really believed that they have achieved their intended target and now they would only be reaping benefits.

However, the events which have happened since last one year in Afghanistan has indicated otherwise. Pakistan’s aspirations and expectations for this Afghan government have gone down the drain. From August to December 2021, three incidents of border skirmishes took place while this number increased to seven in 2022. The latest border clash between the two countries in December, 2022 had Taliban fighters and the Pakistani forces exchanging heavy artillery fires on each other in the Spin-Boldak-Chaman border. This cross-border firing killed reportedly many civilians on the Pakistani side and one Taliban fighter in Afghanistan. This shows that Taliban is not ready to accept Durand Line and would challenge Pakistan to ensure the sanctity of their sovereignty. Pakistan’s desire to have a smooth ride on this issue remains a distant dream and Taliban appears to have woken up to the real intentions of Pakistan.

 In 1970s, Pakistan played an intermediatory and facilitating role between the first generation of religious fanatics – Mujahidin (holy warriors) and the West in the fight against the Soviets. It militarized generations of Afghan refugees who had fled Soviet’s invasion in refugee camps where millions of Afghan refugees were settled along the Afghanistan border. Between 2001 and 2021 during the so-called ‘war on terror’, Pakistani support shifted from refugee camps to madrassas where thousands of Afghan refugee children were radicalized and brainwashed. According to reports, Balochistan alone accommodates at least 5,500 Madrassas. 

Over the years, Taliban offered themselves as strategic assets to carry out Pakistan’s interests in the insurgency battle but played as a ‘double-edged weapon’ that would come back and bite their creators later. The Taliban used Pakistan’s territory with the consent of its military and intelligence establishment for 20 years against Afghanistan, now its security is at greater risk with the spread of the Talibanization in the whole region. Taliban’s offspring – Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have increased their attacks against Pakistan’s army since the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan. Since then, Pakistan has started to look at Afghan Taliban more as their strategic threat and a nightmare. 

During the 77th UN General Assembly in September, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif shared his country’s concern about “major terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan” including ISIS-Khurasan Provinces (IS-KP) and TTP. Afghans have a proverb that says, “You reap what you grow.” Pakistan has created the Taliban and now it has to cope with the consequences of its actions.     

 In an influential 2012 journal article by Jagmohan Meher, a political scientist at the National Defense Academy in India argued that Pakistan failed to realize the fact that supporting an inclusive government in Afghanistan was in its best interest. “The rationale of the search for strategic depth or a ‘right-Pashtun’ controlled Afghanistan regime for a secured Pakistan is ill-conceived and baseless, and on the contrary, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – for which Pakistan is so desperately fighting – would be a bigger threat to the very survival of the Pakistani state,” argues Meher.   

Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir wrote in an Op-ed in December for Washington Post that the terrorist attacks in Pakistan has increased by 51 percent since the Taliban takeover. As recently as on the 23rd of December, one Pakistani police officer was killed and two others were injured in a gunfire, which TTP took responsibility. Since their short-lived ceasefire ended in November, TTP have increased their terrorist activities in Pakistan.  

On the 17th of December, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari warned that it would not tolerate terrorist attacks by the TTP or other separatist organizations like the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and will reconsider his country’s strategy towards Afghanistan. Both TTP and BLA have posed a major threat to Pakistan’s internal security and their operation has been emboldened by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. 

The recent attack on Pakistan Embassy in Kabul targeting the Ambassador, though claimed by ISKP terror elements, shows the increased disgruntlement of Afghans against the Pakistan establishment for its interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. 

It is becoming increasing evident that Taliban is trying to establish itself as an independent power entity, moving away from the holds of Pakistan. However, to gain international recognition, Taliban has to make its government inclusive and ensure that the fundamental rights of women to study and work are guaranteed and protected. This is crucial to vein away from their dependency on countries such as Pakistan and get access funds and markets in the global space.

Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the article.

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