Do the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan get on as well as some think?

To suggest that the Taliban would work for and in Pakistan’s interest is simply not in line with history or reality.
Published April 26, 2019

As negotiations between the Taliban and the United States proceed, given Pakistan’s leverage with the Taliban, some circles in Afghanistan have raised concerns that the Taliban, if and when they become part of government, would work to further Pakistan’s interest in Kabul.

One way to know whether a future Taliban presence in the Afghan government would directly benefit Islamabad is to look at the nature of the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban from when the Taliban emerged in Kandahar in 1994 to when they were toppled by the US in 2001.

Who benefitted from whom

I believe the Taliban were taking advantage of Pakistan rather than the other way around.

Since Pakistan was the Taliban’s only neighbour and one of the three countries that recognised it, the Taliban heavily depended on Pakistan for political, moral and military support in the fight against the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan even ignored UN sanctions forbidding assistance to the Taliban by providing technical expertise and oil to help the Taliban run their war machine.

The Taliban, however, didn’t do much to address Pakistan’s (strategic) concerns.

For instance, the Taliban, like previous Afghan governments, also refused to recognise the Durand Line as an international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A brief, albeit bitter, exchange about the Durand Line between the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and the retired Pakistani general-turned-politician Naseerullah Babar is worth sharing.

Over a meal, Babar asked Omar if the latter recognised the Durand Line, “all problems would be resolved.” Omar took serious offence at his guest’s unsolicited advice and, going against the grain of the Pashtun code of honour, shouted at Babar to stop eating and leave the place at once — calling Babar, who was an ethnic Pashtun, a “traitor.”

Furthermore, the Taliban with their indefensible human rights records and onslaught on cultural heritage, caused Pakistan much embarrassment. The Taliban’s decision, in 2001, to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan perfectly captured the mood.

Perspective: How Pakistan can help with the Afghan peace process

President Musharraf sent the Pakistani interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, to urge the Taliban not to destroy the Buddha statues. President Musharraf’s message through his interior minister, however, fell on deaf ears and the Taliban proceeded with destroying the statues, prompting widespread global condemnation.

Additionally, the Taliban failed to find a solution to the Afghan refugee problem facing Pakistan. Although under the Taliban some refugees returned home from Pakistan, the influx of refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan continued unabated — triggered by the Taliban-Northern Alliance conflict, human rights abuses and economic hardship, according to the UNHCR Country Report from 2000.

Moreover, even under the Taliban, who at one point controlled all of Afghanistan except Panjshir and Badakhshan, Pakistan’s desire to turn Afghanistan into its strategic depth against India didn’t materialise.

On the contrary, in my opinion, it was the Taliban that were using Pakistan as a strategic depth until September 11, 2001. Without Pakistan’s all-weather support, the Taliban’s war machine would not have performed so well against its adversaries.

More importantly, the Taliban’s success in the 1990s played a role in inspiring extremists in Pakistan. As Pakistani madrassas supplied a steady flow of foot soldiers to the Taliban frontlines, the return of these madrassa students to Pakistan, or even their dying on the battlefield, inspired the possibility of establishing a Taliban-style government in Pakistan, or parts of it.

The case of Maulana Sufi Muhammad of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Shariat-e-Muhammadi stands out. While he made headlines in 2009 for having succeeded in his efforts to impose Sharia in Swat, he and his followers had long fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sufi Mohammad’s student and son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah would later become the leader of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in 2013 and headed the group until his death in 2018.

Why Pakistan supported the Taliban

No sooner did the mujahideen come to power in Afghanistan in 1992 than they turned against each other.

Mujahideen commanders-turned-warlords busied themselves with wholesale killing, robbery and rape. Afghanistan was divided into little fiefdoms and a bloodbath ensued.

Neighbouring countries also vied for influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan mostly supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. Iran sided with Abdul Ali Mazari’s Hizb-e-Wahdat. India and Russia threw their weight behind Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami. Estimates of civilians killed between 1992 and 1996 range anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

It was in reaction to this chaos that a band of madrassa students, or the Taliban — with ‘taliban’ being the Farsi plural for ‘talib’, literally meaning ‘student’ in Arabic — emerged in Kandahar to restore order.

Op-ed: Ironies of the Afghan war

In contrast to many unfounded claims, the Taliban movement was indigenous to Kandahar. It was after the Taliban’s initial successes against warlords in southern Afghanistan that brought them to Pakistan’s attention.

From Pakistan’s perspective, not only would the Taliban restore order on Pakistan’s border, which in turn would pave the way for trade with Central Asia, but they would also represent a better alternative than President Rabbani’s government in Kabul, which was viewed with suspicion in Islamabad as being anti-Pakistan and pro-India.

In other words, although the Taliban were not an ideal partner Islamabad would have wanted, they were the lesser of two evils available to Pakistan.

The Afghan mujahideen precedent

Despite being on Pakistan’s payroll, not a single one of the seven mujahideen organisations, after the collapse of the Najibullah government in 1992, set up a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.

In fact, members of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami, Sebghatullah Mujaddedi’s Jabh-e-Nijat-e-Mili Afghanistan and the leader of Ittehad-e-Islami, Abdur Rab Rasool Sayyaf, were vocal critics of Pakistan for years.

Unfavourable opinion of Pakistan is not limited to former mujahideen. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, whom the Musharraf government handed over to the US in violation of diplomatic protocol, is a prominent critic of Pakistan.

His memoir, My Life with the Taliban, in addition to highlighting Zaeef’s role within the Taliban movement, is also a catalogue of grievances against Pakistan.

US-Taliban talks: As hopes rise of a deal, what comes next?

One could only imagine Taliban founding member Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s attitude towards Pakistan, who spent eight years in Pakistani custody and was released late last year.

In short, successful conclusion of negotiations between the Taliban and the US, or even the Taliban’s return to power, may or may not lead to sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

However, to suggest that the Taliban would work for and in Pakistan’s interest is simply not in line with either history or reality.

If the Taliban didn’t address any of Pakistan’s key concerns in the 1990s when they were in total isolation, why would they when they come to power next?

Are you examining Pakistan’s foreign policy involvements? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com