Home to roost
Sudha Ramachandran reflects on how Islamabad’s long-term policy on Afghanistan may backfire as the Taliban, poised for power, looks set to steer its own course
The Taliban’s likely return to power in Afghanistan, whether as part of a power-sharing arrangement or an all-out power grab, is expected to provide a shot in the arm to Pakistan’s strategic and other interests in Afghanistan and the region.
Nevertheless, the Taliban’s expected ascent to power in Kabul will not be without problems for Pakistan.
As an insurgent group the Taliban has often acted as Pakistan’s proxy, taking orders from Islamabad to promote the latter’s interests in Afghanistan. However, in power it may not always be so willing to meet Pakistan’s demands. Its previous stint in power (1996-2001) is instructive in this regard.
Pakistan set up the Taliban in 1994 and provided it with military and other support. This enabled the insurgent group to capture power in Kabul in 1996. Yet, once in power, the Taliban did not acquiesce to all of its patron’s demands.
The Taliban regime harboured several Pakistani militants on Afghan soil but did not hand them over to the Pakistani government, despite the latter’s repeated requests, observes Abdul Basit, a noted Pakistani counter-terrorism analyst based in Singapore, in an article on The Interpreter website.
The possibility of the Taliban exercising more autonomy in its decision making and policies once it is in power cannot therefore be ruled out.
When the Taliban was ousted from power at the end of 2001, its leaders and fighters fled to Pakistan, where the Pakistan government provided them with sanctuary. The Taliban’s ‘Rahbari Shura’ or leadership council has been based in Quetta in the years since, and it is from Pakistani soil that the group has waged its insurgency against the US-led coalition troops and the Afghan forces.
While sanctuary in Pakistan was crucial for the Taliban’s survival, it came at a cost: it was dependent on Pakistan and thus vulnerable to Pakistani pressure. It had to toe the Pakistani line and carry out orders given by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Any attempt by the Taliban to chart out an independent course of action has drawn strong action from the ISI. In 2010, for instance, Mullah Baradar, then a deputy to the Taliban’s founder-leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, was arrested in Karachi. Apparently, the Taliban was pursuing secret talks with the Hamid Karzai government, which did not have ISI approval. The ISI is said to have raided Taliban hide-outs, and arrested leaders for building links with Iran and other countries.
Thus, the patron-client relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban has seen its ups and downs and the Taliban is said to have stepped up efforts to wriggle free of Pakistan’s grip in recent years. It has dispatched several members of the Rahbari Shura, who were once based only in Pakistan, to operate out of other countries too, points out Basit.
To reduce dependence on Pakistan, Taliban leaders have reached out to Iran for support and sanctuary, with a growing number of its fighters based on Iranian soil in recent years.
The Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan for sanctuary has also declined because it has gained control over an expanding swathe of territory in Afghanistan. More fighters and camps have been moved out of Pakistan back into Afghanistan.Its need for sanctuary in Pakistan will fall further when it returns to power in Kabul.
While it is widely believed that it was through Pakistan’s prompting that the Taliban came to the negotiating table, it appears, in fact, to have been the Qatari government’s behind-the-scenes assurances that led the group to agree to the intra-Afghan talks. So it is Qatar, apparently, rather than Pakistan that currently enjoys the Taliban’s trust.
If the Taliban’s faith in Pakistan has waned over the years, so has that of Pakistan in its protégé. The Pakistan government seems none too keen on an Afghan government solely comprising the Taliban, or dominated by the group.
It is aware that a Taliban government in Afghanistan could boost religious extremism in the region, especially in Pakistan. In the decades it has operated out of Pakistan, the Taliban has developed strong ties with several extremist outfits, some of which are anti-Pakistan. Although the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are distinct groups with different goals, the former has allowed the Pakistan Taliban to operate freely out of territory under its control. Should it come to power in Kabul, it is unlikely to crack the whip on such groups.
Pakistan has several cards that it can be expected to play if the Taliban in power prove troublesome, or undermine Islamabad’s strategic and other interests.
It is anticipated that the ISI would pick up new protégés and find new proxies, not only from the Taliban and affiliated groups but also from other Islamist and jihadist groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network, for instance, has always had a strong equation with the ISI. There is also the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, which would be more than willing to avail itself of ISI arms and funding to take on the Taliban.
Pakistan is reported to be deeply concerned over the rapid pull-out of US forces from Afghanistan. Such a move could plunge its neighbour into turmoil, perhaps even a civil war, and would also trigger another exodus of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. Not only would this impose an economic burden on Pakistan but it could also spark another wave of instability in the country. Inter and intra-ethnic fighting in Afghanistan would spillover into Pakistan again.
For decades, Pakistan’s deep state has pursued a destructive policy of setting up and nurturing terror groups to further its foreign policy interests in neighbouring countries.
Now, this policy appears to be on the brink of putting Islamabad’s proxy, the Taliban, in the driving seat in Kabul. However, this may not be as beneficial as expected to the Taliban’s patrons in Islamabad. Pakistan’s plans in Kabul could end up unravelling.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent analyst based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at Sudha.firstname.lastname@example.org