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Afghanistan: Can Pakistan 'manage' the Taliban?

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
July 13, 2021

Chaos has gripped Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of NATO troops from the war-torn country. Authorities in Islamabad hope it won't spill over to Pakistan, but experts say they might not be able to prevent it.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi receives members of the Taliban delegation at the Foreign Office in Islamabad in October 2019
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi: 'We have no favorites' in AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Pakistan Foreign Office

The security situation in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating amid the withdrawal of NATO troops from the country. The Afghan Taliban have intensified their attacks on government forces and have captured vast swathes of territory in the past few months.

A political settlement in Afghanistan seems unlikely at this point, with both the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani's government blaming each other for the turmoil.

Pakistan, which shares a 2,611-kilometer (1,622-mile) border with Afghanistan, faces a likely fallout from the Taliban advances, mainly because it has given impetus to the Pakistani Taliban, called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operate in the country's northwestern region.

The Pakistani army had forced the TTP fighters to retreat, but they are now feeling emboldened by the changing dynamics in Afghanistan. Since the start of the year, the TTP has claimed 32 attacks inside Pakistan.

Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan's national security adviser, said last week that the security situation in Afghanistan was "extremely bad and out of Pakistan's control."

Major General Babar Iftikhar, the spokesman for the Pakistan army, on Saturday warned that the possible civil war in Afghanistan could spill over to Pakistan.

"We were aware [of the situation] and have taken several measures to deal with it. 'Islamic State' (IS), the TTP and their affiliates are using their bases in Afghanistan to plan and initiate attacks on Pakistan's armed forces," he said.

But Zabiullah Mujahid, an Afghan Taliban spokesperson, told DW that the insurgents "will not allow any group to use Afghan soil to initiate attacks on other countries."

"We have no link with the TTP. We won't be part of any plans to target other countries, as it will damage our credibility."

A double-edged sword

Pakistan has long been accused of aiding the Taliban against President Ghani's government. Experts say the main reason behind this support is to counter India's clout in Afghanistan. With the departure of NATO troops, Islamabad hopes to regain the influence it lost in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Islamabad played a vital role in the US-Taliban negotiations, which resulted in a deal between the two parties in February 2020. But it hoped that the deal would pave the way for a power-sharing agreement between different stakeholders in Afghanistan. That hasn't happened, and with the abrupt announcement of  the complete and unconditional departure of troops from Afghanistan by US President Joe Biden, it now looks almost impossible.

With the departure of NATO troops and Taliban advances in the country, a civil war in Afghanistan seems more likely than ever. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Afghanistan expert, told DW in an interview that the chaotic situation in Afghanistan "can suck in the neighboring countries."

"If that happens, that will be the end of Afghanistan," he said.

He also said the Taliban would not engage in a dialogue with Ghani's government "as long as the Pakistani military and intelligence continue to give them sanctuary."

"Why should they when their leaders and their families are safe? If Pakistan wants to show its sincerity, it needs to immediately force the Taliban leaders to either compromise or leave their sanctuaries in Quetta or in Peshawar," Rashid said.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst and strategic affairs expert, told DW that Pakistan's military generals "are confused and divided between their hope that they will manage the Taliban and a realization that not everything will be under their control."

Influx of refugees and security risk

Will Pakistan border fence stop militants?

The most immediate concern for Pakistan is the possible influx of refugees from Afghanistan. National Security Adviser Yusuf said the TTP militants, who had fled to Afghanistan following Pakistan's military operations, "could enter Pakistan disguised as refugees."

A UN report last year stated that more than 6,000 TTP fighters had taken refuge in Afghanistan.

In 2015, Pakistani authorities started fencing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to stop Afghan militants from entering the country.

General Iftikhar says that more than 90% of the border has been fenced. "Border security is a two-way traffic and the other side [Afghan government] should have also worked on fencing, but unfortunately it did not."

But analyst Siddiqa says fencing alone won't secure Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. "The TTP is an extension of the Afghan Taliban; therefore, Pakistan needs to negotiate with them. The use of violence against those crossing the fence will only make things worse."

Pakistani Islamists feel emboldened

As NATO forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan, some clerics and Islamist groups sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban are accused of intensifying efforts to solicit support for the militant group.

Videos have emerged on Pakistani social media platforms showing clerics promoting support for the Afghan Taliban and calling for donations.

The Afghan Taliban is banned in Pakistan, but some clerics or Islamist groups sympathetic to the militant group have been known to recruit on their behalf. There are also reports of local Taliban leaders holding press conferences in the country's northwestern tribal areas.

"There is also a risk of sectarian violence and a greater role for the militant proxies in Pakistan," Siddiqa said.

Maria Sultan, a Pakistani defense analyst, says Islamabad should not take sides in Afghanistan's internal conflict.

"Pakistan can counter the TTP threat, but it depends on what kind of government emerges in Afghanistan. If the Taliban opt for an inclusive government, other militant groups will have to contest for space in Afghanistan. But if it excludes other ethnic groups, there could be a civil war in the country," she said.

Experts say that in case of a civil war, Afghanistan's neighboring countries, including Pakistan, are bound to face negative consequences, and it won't be easy for anyone to manage the situation.

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon