The Afghan Taliban Dilemma for Pakistan (Opinion)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning that “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbour” resurfaced in the minds of many after a ghastly terrorist attack in Peshawar claimed more than 100 lives. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted the provincial police force.

Pakistan had experienced similar attacks before, including the 2014 Army Public School attack, where school children and teachers were targeted by another armed group affiliated with the TTP, and the Taliban’s shooting of then-14-year-old Malala Yousafzai two years prior. While the frequency of such attacks had decreased in recent years, the change of regime in Afghanistan appears to be causing a shift.

The leadership of a state that has endured terrorism from extremist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban) should be keenly aware of the dangers posed by a Taliban regime in its vicinity. However, in the highest echelons of military and civilian offices of Pakistan, the news of the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government seemed to have been embraced with open arms and officials responded with cautious optimism. Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that the “shackles of slavery” had been broken in Afghanistan following the regime change, while former ISI Chief Faiz Hameed reassured reporters that “everything will be ok” during his visit to Kabul. Some notable analysts even expressed hope that Pakistan would achieve internal stability as a result of this regime change.

Ordinary observers would have been stunned by the hopes and celebrations in the corridors of power. It may also appear to them to be a severe case of historical amnesia. After all, Pakistan had fought the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban alongside the United States in a “War on Terror” that lasted more than a decade. But for those who closely follow Pakistan’s geopolitics and are familiar with the country’s counterinsurgency policies, the embrace of the Taliban takeover was not a shock. For decades, the military-led establishment has been obsessed with the policy of “Strategic Depth.” This policy viewed the Afghan Taliban as strategic assets to achieve their geopolitical ambitions. This approach entails supporting the Afghan Taliban to expand Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan. Under this strategic calculus, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan would reduce Indian political influence in the country and secure Pakistan’s western frontier.

Defendants of this policy highlight the increased Indian presence in Afghanistan under the previous governments. They believed that India sought to establish a foothold in Afghanistan to undermine Pakistan’s security and strategic interests and both Ghani and Karzai regimes accommodated them. They stressed the risks of destabilisation in Pakistan in the case of India encircling the country.  Thus, the brutal, oppressive, and backward Taliban were supported and the Afghan people’s suffering was deemed collateral damage.

Although the threat from India may be real, supporting militant groups was never the appropriate solution. While the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were seen as pro-India, substantial evidence for their governments supporting India in fueling unrest in Pakistan has not emerged. Taliban now also seek to maintain positive diplomatic ties with India and are actively seeking their economic and military support. India too has extended humanitarian support in times of crisis and has resumed diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. This indicates that the Indian presence in Pakistan’s west will persist for the foreseeable future. The policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban to prevent that has hence failed.

Moreover, despite hopes for improved internal security, Pakistan is facing a grim reality with rising terrorist attacks, including recent ones targeting police in Peshawar and Karachi. In spite of the previous Afghan government’s efforts to jail TTP leaders, the current Taliban regime has chosen to release them. Afghan Taliban have also provided sanctuary and security to the Pakistani Taliban. Contrary to expectations in the power corridors of improved security following the regime change in Afghanistan, Pakistan has experienced a surge in terrorist attacks, with anti-state TTP operating from bases in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth has not only failed to achieve its strategic objectives but has also generated animosity among the Afghan populace. In attempting to prevent Indian influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has inadvertently fueled hostility towards itself. There has been rising anti-Pakistan sentiment amongst the Afghans and they have taken to the streets to protest against Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and its meddling in their country.

This deteriorating relationship between Pakistan and the Afghan population may have a detrimental impact on the future relationship between the two countries. Taliban can not be expected to rule Afghanistan indefinitely. For argument’s sake, even if they do, it can not be guaranteed that the relationship between the two countries will remain the same. Choosing to support specific political forces at the expense of alienating others is a dangerously shortsighted diplomatic decision that prove to be costly in the future.

In addition to this, Pakistan’s unwavering support for the Afghan Taliban has further isolated a significant portion of its own society. The policy of strategic depth and Taliban support has faced increased criticism within Pakistan, particularly from the grassroots Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. This movement, which advocates for the human rights of Pashtuns who have suffered atrocities from both the Taliban and the military during and after the War on Terror, has been met with crackdowns and censorship from the state. Instead of addressing their demands, the state has resorted to gaslighting the movement and turning a blind eye to their plight. Non-violent political resistance has been responded to with brutal state oppression. This highhanded state response in itself has become fuel for political resistance in the country.

Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth and support for the Taliban has led to disastrous consequences. While the regime change in Afghanistan was seen as an opportunity to improve internal security, Pakistan has instead experienced a surge in terrorist attacks. By supporting militant groups, Pakistan has generated animosity among the Afghan populace and isolated a significant portion of its own society.

The brutal reality of Pakistan’s internal security situation cannot be ignored, and it is crucial for the state to address the underlying issues and concerns of its people. But supporting extremist groups will only create further problems instead of providing solutions for existing ones. As Pakistan was earlier warned, the consequences of keeping snakes in one’s backyard can be deadly. It is time for Pakistan to take a different approach towards its neighbours, its citizens and the wider region.

Haleema Hijazi

Haleema is a Pakistani author trying to create a world where the powerful are held accountable.

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