Pakistan has had a paradoxical role in Afghanistan – accused of providing covert support to the Taliban on one hand, while playing a major supporting role in the US war on terror against al-Qaeda on the other.

Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban was formed in the mid-1990s, after the Islamist militia emerged from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar to quell the chaotic civil war that had been going on since the departure of occupying Soviet forces in 1989. Many of the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban fighters and their families lived in Pakistan as refugees, spoke Urdu and were friendly with their hosts. On the other hand, the non-Pashtun factions making up the Northern Alliance opposed to the Taliban had a history of hostility towards Pakistan predating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Islamabad was forced to set aside its preferences in Afghanistan when presented with an ultimatum by the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks planned by al-Qaeda leaders hosted by the Taliban. Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf seized the opportunity to once again make his country a close ally of the US, thereby gaining it billions of dollars of debt relief and military aid. Islamabad, however, was galled when Washington ignored its advice to accept a Taliban surrender and include the group in negotiations on Afghanistan’s political future. Instead, the 2001 Bonn agreement led to the creation of an Afghan government dominated by the Northern Alliance, the leaders of which were friendly with India, Pakistan’s perennial foe.

After US political attention switched to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Washington began to draw down on its military assets in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s relations with the government in Kabul deteriorated.

American officials in 2004 reported that Islamabad had quietly resumed supporting the Taliban after the group showed signs of resurgence in the provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan.

The relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban was a marriage of convenience based on tactical divergences in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it was to keep India out of Afghanistan by helping the Taliban. For the Taliban, it was to resist the US presence and eventually force it out of Afghanistan by availing itself of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Beyond this marriage of convenience, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban had its own ups and downs, disagreements and divergences. For instance, Islamabad was frustrated by the Taliban’s lack of action against the thousands of Pakistani Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan. Likewise, the Taliban has not trusted Pakistan since it sided with Washington in the global war on terror and handed over several Taliban leaders to the US.

The Pakistan-Taliban relationship, which has effectively weathered everything the last two decades, will be further tested now that the Taliban are in power. Issues of governance, the decades-long border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the overall foreign policy of the Taliban would be at play.

Contrary to its oft-stated diplomatic position that it has no favourite in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government is clearly comfortable with the return of the Taliban and appears to be gearing up to further rehabilitate the Taliban on the international stage. Islamabad is optimistic that the fall of the Afghan government will deprive ethnic Baloch rebel groups of logistical support for attacks against Pakistani security forces in western Balochistan province, which houses the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar. Pakistan frequently accused the Kabul administration of working with Indian intelligence agencies to support the Baloch rebels, thereby hemming it in between two hostile flanks – India to the east and Afghanistan to the west. With the Taliban in power, Pakistan’s political influence will increase in Afghanistan. Stability there would enable the extension of the US$65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan, opening the way for Pakistan to trade more freely and frequently with Central Asia and export energy via Afghanistan.

But Pakistan only stands to gain in terms of stability on its western border if the Taliban are able to govern effectively, accommodate other ethnic groups and establish lasting peace. Conversely, if they are unable to do so, Afghanistan could face an uncertain and unstable future which will not be in Pakistan’s interest.

Analysts say it is inevitable Pakistan will face a political blowback from the humiliated US government and its allies. Islamabad will have to bear the brunt of the Taliban’s oppressive policies in Afghanistan because it was seen as the group’s main backer. The international community will judge Pakistan more than the Taliban for supporting them and helping them form a government in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has repeatedly advised Taliban representatives in recent months that it will not accord diplomatic recognition to its government if it sought to reimpose the brutal dictatorship overthrown by US invasion forces in October 2001. Nonetheless, fears in Islamabad have begun to germinate that an orchestrated campaign of scapegoating Pakistan could take place.

The Taliban’s victory and triumphant jihadist narrative will embolden Islamist radical groups in Pakistan. The leaders of Pakistan’s two strongest Islamist political parties have welcomed the Taliban victory, with one even offering to help the group with its plans for governance in Afghanistan.  They will romanticise the Taliban, become more aggressive and less cooperative, and democracy, free speech and critical thinking will take a big hit.

The TTP has gained a lot with the Afghan Taliban’s ascendance, including the materials of the Afghan military. The Taliban also released some 780 former TTP leaders and fighters from Afghan jails . Rather than helping Pakistan, the Taliban government is likely to press Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP, something which can become a point of inflection in the future. Playing on Afghan nationalist sentiment, the TTP recently announced plans to reoccupy Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas and establish an independent emirate there.

Pakistan will recognise the Taliban government but not any time soon and based on conditions including the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government and respect of fundamental human rights.

Islamabad and close ally Beijing will coordinate their positions on Afghanistan, but both will take it slow and observe instead of rushing in to recognise the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, and Pakistan will also wait for Russia to be on board.

US-Pakistan ties will remain strained , with Washington asking for counterterrorism support and pressure on the Taliban. The respective decisions of the US and Pakistan on whether to recognise the Taliban government will not be linked, however. If the Taliban behave responsibly and run their government moderately, US-Pakistan relations will stay afloat without showing any improvement, but if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, however, US-Pakistan ties will nosedive

Reemerging Terror Threats

The Taliban’s ascendance in Afghanistan will almost certainly inspire Islamist extremists across the globe. As both the Taliban and al-Qaeda push a narrative of having defeated the United States and over 40 other NATO countries, extremists of all stripes are likely to reconverge on Afghanistan much like they did in the 1990s. Without U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan to support intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations by the Afghan forces, al-Qaeda and other terrorists will have more freedom of operation and the ability to rebuild their leadership networks and capabilities. U.S. intelligence cooperation with the Afghans could help to mitigate terrorist threats in the near-term but the challenges to maintaining pressure on most terrorism threats will mount over time. The only potential exception to this trend may be threats from ISIS-K. The Taliban’s opposition to ISIS-K could prove helpful in reducing the threat it poses to the United States and its allies.

While Pakistan maintains significant influence with the Taliban leadership, it has been unwilling to use this leverage to moderate Taliban behavior or sever the Taliban’s links to terrorism. Pakistan has supported the Taliban in the form of supplying weapons, training, and battlefield advice, and facilitating Taliban fighters’ cross-border movements, despite strong U.S. pressure and the risk of being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan may hope U.S. officials will shrug off its role in assisting the Taliban all these years and focus instead on using Pakistani ties to the group to moderate its behavior in the future. However, it would be naïve for the U.S. to believe Pakistan would alter its policies toward the Taliban now that they are ascendant in Afghanistan. Until Pakistan gives up its long-held belief that the most effective way to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan is through support to the Taliban, Pakistani officials will be loath to pressure the Taliban on issues of concern to the United States.

Instead of continuing to tolerate Pakistan’s double game on Afghanistan, the United States should focus instead on developing counterterrorism partnerships with Central Asian states, namely Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. While the Central Asian states would be unlikely to host U.S. forces, they would be open to closer intelligence cooperation and may allow the United States to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions from their territory.

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