Pakistan’s glee over Taliban takeover obscures domestic threats

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Pakistan updates

As the Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after a dramatic military offensive, the leaders of neighbouring Pakistan did not hide their schadenfreude at the ignominious end to the US’s 20-year mission in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery”. Raoof Hasan, his special assistant, wrote on Twitter that “the contraption that the US had pieced together for Afghanistan has crumbled like the proverbial house of cards”. As Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, Hasan hailed what he called “a virtually smooth shifting of power” from Ghani’s “corrupt” government to Taliban rule.

Pakistan has long played a paradoxical role in Afghanistan: a nominal US ally in its “war on terror” that has for decades been accused of covertly providing the Taliban the support needed to withstand the Nato-backed military campaign — particularly via its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

As a result, the Islamist militants’ return to power across the border has been widely hailed as a repudiation of American adventurism and a step towards Pakistan’s most important national security objective: quashing the influence of rival India in a country it considers its backyard.

India, an ally of Ghani, hastily closed consulates around the country as the Taliban advanced.

“There is a clear sense of triumphalism in Pakistan,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, a former state department official in the country and now senior fellow at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington DC.

Yet Pakistan has plenty to lose from the Taliban’s ascendancy, which risks triggering problems ranging from a flood of refugees to a resurgence of the Taliban-linked domestic terrorism that has killed thousands of Pakistanis.

“The Taliban’s rise is not at all a simple outcome for Pakistan,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a book about extremism in the country. “Taliban rule in Afghanistan will probably have serious adverse security repercussions.”

Jihadi groups operating in and around Pakistan, most notably the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, “consider the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a larger ideological victory. That portends instability in the region in the longer run,” she said.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs last month, former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani dubbed the Taliban’s success a “pyrrhic victory”.

For years, Pakistan was wracked by violence at the hands of the TTP, most notoriously the 2014 massacre of 150 people — overwhelmingly children — at a school in Peshawar. Since then, Pakistani security forces have cracked down but its fighters regrouped in Afghanistan. Some of its members were reportedly recently freed from local prisons by Taliban fighters.

A minister in Khan’s cabinet who did not want to be named acknowledged the heightened security threat that Pakistan faced. “This is a risk that we have to consider,” the minister said. “Is there going to be a spillover? If so, in what form?”

Pakistan’s accommodation with the Taliban has also damaged relations with the US, a strategic ally since the cold war. President Joe Biden is yet to contact Khan since taking office in January, a perceived diplomatic slight that has irked the prime minister.

“The Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now, and I think that’s why there’s a different way of treating Pakistan,” Khan said last week.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington DC, said the Taliban’s swift takeover represented “a best-case scenario for Islamabad”. It could limit the immediate flow of refugees to Pakistan, which already hosts about 3m displaced Afghans, while giving the Taliban an opportunity to consolidate power.

“A stable Afghanistan will work in Pakistan’s favour,” said Ayaz Amir, a former member of Pakistan’s parliament.

The Taliban has a longstanding relationship with Pakistan. Its early leaders, ethnic Pashtuns who live near the Afghan-Pakistan border, studied in Pakistani seminaries in the 1980s before returning to Afghanistan and joining the Islamist government that took power in the 1990s.

Although Pakistan ostensibly turned its back on the Taliban after the US-led Afghan invasion in 2001, its military and intelligence officials are documented to have continued assisting the group.

Some sympathised with its extreme ideology while others deemed it an indispensable asset to counter India. Taliban leaders have long lived and done business in Pakistan, and wounded fighters have been treated in its hospitals.

The Haqqani Network, an affiliate of the Taliban, has a “close relationship” with the ISI, according to a recent report from the US Institute of Peace. “The Taliban rely on Pakistan as their biggest patron,” one western diplomat said. 

Hamid Gul, a former ISI director-general, once joked that history would note that “the ISI defeated America in Afghanistan, with America’s help”.

A senior Pakistani foreign ministry official denied the Taliban was an Islamabad “proxy” but acknowledged it had pursued a “dual track” strategy, keeping lines of communication open to ensure the militants “do not connect with Islamic hardline groups in Pakistan”.

Some analysts are sceptical, arguing that Islamabad will struggle to convince an emboldened and more powerful Afghan Taliban to clamp down on its ideological counterparts.

“We certainly don’t want a Taliban-type government to ever take over in Pakistan,” the official said.

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