The Taliban’s rapid victories in neighboring Afghanistan have once again highlighted deep divisions within Pakistan, where some are celebrating the hard-line Islamists’ expanding territorial control while others warn of increasing homegrown violence and extremism.
The public rift heralds a future wherein the Taliban’s possible return to power and the gloating of Pakistani supporters are stoking fears of a subsequent rise in extremism. Many in Pakistan blame its own rulers and terrorist groups for bringing the Afghan war into their country, killing tens of thousands and forcing millions more into displacement.
“The Taliban is acting like a protective barrier for Pakistan [in Afghanistan],” lawmaker Mufti Abdul Shakoor, a leader of the Jamiat Ulam-e Islam (JUI) political party, told the parliament in a heated speech on July 12. “The Afghan Taliban is making sacrifices for defending Pakistan,” he added as he apparently toed an old line of the country’s security establishment.
The Pakistani military has used the various phases of the Afghan conflict since the early 1980s as a means to protect itself from the real or perceived influence of archrival India and fend off possible threats from secular Afghan nationalist regimes who have championed irredentist claims.
Shakoor, a turbaned Pashtun cleric from the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Afghanistan’s border, alleged that agents of India's Research and Analysis Wing and Afghanistan’s Directorate of National Security intelligence agencies were responsible for sending terrorists into Pakistan who killed more than 70,000 people.
“I want to say it out loudly: The Taliban practically controls Afghanistan now because it is popular among the people,” he said. “Who else would have defeated America only with the force of arms?”
He urged Islamabad not to oppose a possible Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. “Even if we cannot support them, we should not oppose them because it equals enmity with Pakistan,” Shakoor noted.
But most secular and moderate Pakistanis take a diametrically opposite view.
“It is wrong to claim we don’t have any favorites in Afghanistan. Our only favorite in Afghanistan is the Taliban,” lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, told lawmakers on July 12 prior to Shakoor’s pro-Taliban speech. “[Supporting the Taliban] is equal to invading our neighboring country and supporting those terrorists who are fighting the state there.”
As Islamabad faces intense public accusations from Afghan officials, senior Pakistani officials have expressed jubilation over the Taliban’s battleground successes in Afghanistan. In previous phases of the war, Islamabad witnessed similar moments when its Afghan Islamist allies assumed power.
But the celebrations are set to prove short-lived as Pakistan faces the security, economic, diplomatic, and political fallout from its deep involvement in Afghanistan.
An Extended Battlefield
Since the 1980s, Pakistani society has undergone a near complete transformation as the state’s official moderate Muslim nationalism has been overtaken by Islamist jihadists and far-right radical clerics. During the past two decades, parts of Pakistan became an extension of the Afghan battlefield as U.S. drones hunted Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and large-scale Pakistani military offensives prompted mass displacement.
“The Islamist political parties and jihadist groups in Pakistan are celebrating the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as their victory,” said Zia Ur Rehman, a Pakistani journalist who frequently reports on the country’s Islamist fundamentalist currents. “But many people are really concerned about the negative impact of the evolving situation in Afghanistan on their country’s security.”
Rehman says a Taliban return to power in Afghanistan will enhance “Talibanization” in Pakistan. “Pakistan is really susceptible to the fallout from great power intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he told Gandhara. “We have been witnessing this since the Soviet invasion more than four decades ago.”
In Tirah, a remote alpine valley near the western district of Khyber on Afghanistan’s border, hard-line clerics inspired by the Afghan Taliban have already banned music and photography and have called on women to observe purdah or veil. “If any financial or physical harm comes [to visitors] because of violations, they will be responsible,” a letter issued by the clerics warned.
This is why, perhaps, Pakistan’s approach is now more ambivalent toward Taliban victories. As rural districts rapidly began to fall to an advancing Taliban in northern Afghanistan, Pakistan’s powerful army chief and spy chief gave an eight-hour briefing to lawmakers on July 1.
Their main message reportedly was that Islamabad is rapidly losing influence over the Afghan Taliban so it is seeking to strengthen border defenses to prevent a spillover of instability from Afghanistan. They also warned of a potential blowback from any crackdown on members of the Afghan Taliban who have been sheltering in Pakistan for the past two decades.
Many civilian leaders, however, were more obvious in expressing their hopes that Taliban battlefield gains will work to Pakistan’s advantage.
“Two issues that threaten Pakistan's emerging economy. One is unrest in Afghanistan on which we hope: Taliban and their countrymen find peace and healing,” the country’s largely ceremonial head of state, President Arif Alvi, tweeted on July 11.
Hopes For A Reformed Taliban
In recent weeks, some ministers ran an undeclared campaign to inform Pakistanis of their country’s involvement with the Taliban, which Islamabad has spent decades largely denying.
“Sometimes their dead bodies arrive, and sometimes they come here in hospitals to get medical treatment,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told Geo TV, a private news channel, on June 27. But more recently on July 11 he said he hoped that a “new, civilized Afghan Taliban” would join peace talks instead of pressing ahead with its violent campaign.
While other ministers joined Rashid in praising the Afghan Taliban and attempted to paint the militants as reformed versions of the religious zealots who swept to power in the 1990s, senior security officials warned of repercussions of the Afghan war and the banned Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) taking advantage of the mounting chaos.
"We were aware [of the situation] and have taken several measures to deal with it. Islamic State, the TTP, and their affiliates are using their bases in Afghanistan to plan and initiate attacks on Pakistan's armed forces," Major General Babar Iftikhar, the military spokesman, told journalists on July 10.
But many in Pakistan are not convinced Islamabad is ready to abandon its support for the Taliban. Farhatullah Babar, a former lawmaker and leader of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party, urged Islamabad to change its course.
“Don’t mistake Taliban for the Afghan nation, they’re a faction only,” he tweeted. “Overt or covert support to a faction sure to antagonize the whole nation,” he added. “No one can fight Afghan nation, much less win. No self-immolation please!”
The already tense relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan nosedived after Afghan officials repeatedly accused Pakistan of being behind the Taliban’s offensives. A peace conference that Islamabad hoped to host over the weekend was postponed, and bilateral relations hit a new low as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recalled all diplomats from Islamabad after the daughter of his country’s ambassador was briefly abducted and "tortured" last week.
Pakistanis have good reason to warn of being burned in Afghanistan. After the fall of Afghanistan’s socialist government in April 1992, many of the anti-Soviet mujahadin factions Islamabad had hosted turned against Pakistan when they assumed power in Kabul. Some of the same leaders are now part of the Afghan government.
After the group’s emergence in late 1994, the Taliban remained broadly allied with Pakistan, but its hard-line policies isolated Islamabad internationally. The Taliban never agreed to formally relinquish Afghanistan’s claims, and like all previous governments resisted recognizing the 19th-century Durand Line as an international border between the two countries.