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Dhaka Tribune

Why did the Afghan Taliban sour on Pakistan?

  • The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has drastically altered the relationship with Pakistan
  • Kabul refuses to submit to Islamabad
Update : 21 Apr 2024, 09:00 AM

The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s government has been growing more and more strained since the fall of Kabul in August 2021.

Many experts attribute the current tensions to the increase in cross-border terrorism originating from Afghanistan.

But some of Islamabad’s recent actions have also embittered the Taliban regime — last year, Pakistan enforced trade restrictions on its neighboring country, expelled 500,000 undocumented Afghan migrants, and implemented stricter visa policies at border crossings.

Last month, Pakistan launched rare air strikes inside Afghanistan, targeting the suspected hideouts of Pakistani militant groups, killing eight people, and prompting Afghan forces to return fire on the border.

From hope to friction

Pakistan had initially hoped to capitalize on its history of cooperation with the Taliban after their takeover, Naad-e-Ali Sulehria, a South Asia Fellow at the PoliTact think tank in Washington, told DW.

Specifically, according to the analyst, Islamabad expected the extremist faction to move against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Pakistani militant groups, and “disrupt their sanctuaries on Afghan soil.”

But those hopes evaporated within the first 12 months of Taliban rule in Kabul. Instead, Pakistan experienced a surge in terrorism as the Taliban return to power emboldened and empowered the TTP.

A report by the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies reveals a staggering 56% increase in fatalities from militant attacks in 2023 compared to 2022, with more than 1,500 deaths, including those of 500 security personnel.

Just this week, two police officers were killed and six injured in two separate attacks in two volatile districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

Why has Pakistan backed the Taliban?

Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban has long been complex and often contradictory, with shifts motivated by historical events and strategic calculations.

The two countries have cultural ties, but have been at loggerheads over the Durand Line, the 2,640km border drawn up by the British in 1893.

The line divided Pashtun tribal lands, eventually fueling the concept of “Pashtunistan,” an independent state incorporating Pashtun areas on both sides of the border. While the state never came to pass, the dispute continues to simmer to this day.

On the other hand, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 saw Islamabad forge close ties with Muslim extremists across the border.

“Fearing Soviet influence, Pakistan became a key conduit for Western aid to the Afghan Mujahideen, a collection of rebel groups fighting against the Soviets,” said Ubaidullah Khilji, an Afghan history researcher currently based in Islamabad.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan become embroiled in a civil war that ushered in a new Islamist faction — the Taliban. Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, recognized the Taliban regime in 1996, providing it with significant military support and resources.

That regime collapsed in late 2001, after the US and its allies occupied Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on the US.

Some members of the group found refuge inside Pakistan, particularly in the border regions. And while Islamabad did cooperate with the US after 9/11, it’s widely acknowledged that some senior elements in Pakistan provided clandestine support for the Taliban, proving crucial for their survival and eventual return to power in August 2021.

“The Taliban used Pakistan as a safe haven to support its insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pakistan saw us as a way to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan,” explained a Taliban official in Kabul’s Education Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was a relationship of mutual convenience.”

New era in Kabul

The Taliban’s return to power has dramatically altered the dynamic. No longer reliant on Pakistan, they are now “asserting their independence and refusing to see themselves as subordinate to Pakistan or obliged to comply with its demands,” said Adam Weinstein, deputy director of the Middle East program at the US think tank, the Quincy Institute

While acknowledging Pakistan’s past assistance, Taliban leaders have claimed the harassment, detentions, and handover of Taliban leaders to the US are also evidence of Islamabad’s duplicity.

The shared ideological, historical, and cultural bonds between the Taliban and the TTP create a complex situation for the Taliban administration.

“Cracking down on the TTP, as demanded by Pakistan, could trigger a backlash within the Taliban itself,” the anonymous Taliban official said, and potentially lead “to defections to the so called “Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K),” a rival extremist group already fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Taliban want new allies

As ties with Pakistan cool, the Taliban administration is forging new partnerships.

Western powers remain hesitant, but other players such as China, Russia, Iran, India, and some Central Asian states are cautiously engaging with the regime.

PoliTact fellow Sulehria pointed out that the Taliban administration was generating significant revenues from foreign investments, particularly by China, in the exploitation of its abundant mineral resources.

“They are shifting towards Iran for international trade access, indicating a diversification of partnerships,” Sulehria told DW. 

While none of the new connections are strong enough to replace the link with Islamabad, the Taliban are also capable of tapping into international humanitarian aid for self-reliance, and taking advantage of the world’s desire for stability.

“Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and the international community provide both direct and indirect support to the Taliban through trade, aid, and diplomatic channels,” Weinstein of the Quincy Institute told DW.

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