Recent developments in Afghanistan constitute a strategic gain for Pakistan, at least for the moment.
In more than 40 years of civil strife, war and instability in Afghanistan, it would not be wrong to say that its neighbours have often pursued their own strategic interests by manipulating the Afghan political field, even at the expense of peace in the country.
Since the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours have varied, they could hardly agree on any one formula. Instead, the country became an intersection of proxy conflicts not only between superpowers, but also between neighbouring states jockeying to empower their favoured political factions.
These political machinations were most visible in the 1990s, when different Mujahedeen groups were bankrolled by external supporters on the basis of their ethnicities and sects. Pakistan mostly backed Pashtun groupings and eventually threw its weight behind the Taliban, while the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as well as Iran extended their support to the forces of the Northern Alliance.
However, current developments suggest that for the first time, Afghanistan’s neighbours have decided not to intervene in the country, and the Taliban takeover has occurred with their tacit approval – although they have emphasised that the Taliban should form an all-inclusive government.
Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour, Pakistan, remains the most critical player in this new mix. Pakistan shares Afghanistan’s longest border, which runs from the Wakhan Corridor in the northeast to the junction of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan near the Iranian city of Zahedan in the southwest. Both countries and their populations have remained connected by religious, tribal and cultural bonds. On the political front, however, they have a rather chequered history, and apart from a brief period in the late 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan – during which their regime was recognised by only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – bilateral relations have remained uneasy. The militant movement’s return to power presents Pakistan with geopolitical opportunities, but also challenges.
Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban dates to the mid-1990s, and continued even after the previous Taliban regime was overthrown by the US-led intervention in 2001. Owing to the alleged presence of the Taliban’s top leadership in Pakistan, this association has been viewed as extremely close. However, the linkage has seen its fair share of ups and downs, and both sides have gone against each other on multiple occasions. In a clear violation of international law, in 2002 Pakistan arrested the former Taliban ambassador to the country, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, and handed him over to the US. Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies also arrested the group’s cofounder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in 2010 and kept him in prison for eight years, only releasing him in 2018 at the request of the US. Additionally, Pakistan has for some years attempted to develop a working relationship with the Tajik and Hazara political factions in Afghanistan in a bid to diversify its engagement with local actors.
The Taliban for their part have actively tried to engage with other regional stakeholders, particularly Iran, to develop strategic autonomy in their operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have also remained silent on the attacks of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against Pakistani security forces and civilians. The Taliban even issued a veiled threat to Pakistan’s security services when they were approached by the US for the possible provision of air and military bases.
Opportunities and Challenges
Against this backdrop, the emergence of the Taliban as the ultimate power-holders in Kabul does serve some of Pakistan’s strategic interests. From a Pakistani perspective, for the last 20 years, Afghanistan has been ruled by governments that have allowed India to strategically embed itself in the country. This Indian presence has allegedly translated into support for Baloch insurgents and the TTP, which have been involved in terrorist activities within Pakistan. The departure of an Afghan government that had become increasingly hostile towards Pakistan will likely diminish India’s structural presence and its use of Afghan soil against Pakistan. This will invariably relieve Pakistan’s security establishment from a two-front engagement against India and Afghanistan. Pakistan can also act as a bridge between the Taliban regime and an international community reluctant to recognise it as a legitimate government, particularly with regards to the presence and activities of terrorist entities such as Islamic State Khorasan Province and Al-Qa’ida. In this manner, Pakistan, which has been politically and strategically ignored by important global actors in favour of its arch-rival India, may regain some semblance of strategic relevance.
There has been concern in Pakistan as the Taliban offensive across Afghanistan has resulted in a mass release of prisoners, including senior leaders of the TTP. Pakistan has fenced off most of its border with Afghanistan, but these TTP elements could still pose a significant challenge to the Pakistani state, particularly in the districts of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Afghan Taliban have more than once affirmed that Afghan soil will not be used for activities against any other country by foreign militants, but they have shown a reluctance to take a clear position on the TTP issue, while also airing concerns on the fencing of the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. This situation is far from ideal from a Pakistani perspective, but as the new Taliban regime faces political and economic isolation from much of the world, its dependence upon Pakistan will increase even further, giving Pakistan even greater leverage on the TTP issue.
The Taliban’s dominance in Afghanistan has given Pakistan a geopolitical edge over India in the broader Central Asian region. A stable Afghanistan could become a strategic conduit between Pakistan and the Central Asian republics and help Pakistan realise its geoeconomic ambitions in the region. Yet, for this to happen, the Taliban must reach a political consensus with other Afghan stakeholders. Barring a political agreement, peace and stability will remain elusive, and the country’s potential to develop into an economic and energy corridor linking South Asia with Central Asia will never be realised.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.