Expect a recalibration of the relationship by both sides now the Taliban are in power.
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has delivered a strategic victory to Pakistan, establishing a friendly government in Kabul for the first time in nearly 20 years. But Pakistan may soon find that friendship with the Taliban won’t come quite as easily.
That’s in large part because the leverage Islamabad had enjoyed over its long-standing asset—derived from the support it provided to the Taliban over the course of a war that has now come to an end—is at risk of being lost. However, both sides have a strong interest in maintaining a warm relationship and are already moving toward a reset that could enable it to emerge stronger—and provide Pakistan with new sources of leverage.
Pakistan has backed the Taliban from their earliest days. It nurtured the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters that later evolved into the Taliban. Islamabad was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government in the 1990s and the last to break formal ties with it in 2001. Islamabad helped reconstitute the group after U.S. forces overthrew them late that year. For nearly two decades, Pakistan provided safe havens to Taliban leaders and medical facilities for wounded fighters. This assistance helped sustain the Taliban, even as they lost thousands of foot soldiers.
The Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan gave leverage to Islamabad, enabling it to influence Taliban behavior on the battlefield and, more recently, to bring the group to negotiations with the U.S. government. But such leverage is unlikely to endure now that the Taliban fully control Afghanistan and have declared the war over. Taliban leaders no longer need refuge across the border or assistance for their fighters, and the military arsenal they’ve inherited from the Afghan state—and from departing U.S. troops—removes any compelling need for Pakistani weaponry.
This presents a conundrum for Islamabad, which is badly in need of leverage. The Pakistanis have an immediate but ambitious ask of the new Taliban government: They want them to curb Pakistan’s Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), a group that was once Pakistan’s biggest terrorist threat and is now resurging in a big way. Its leadership is based in Afghanistan.
The TTP waged a horrific campaign of violence in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014 before being weakened by Pakistani counterterrorism offensives. But, in recent months, its new supreme leader has reunited TTP splinter factions, and the group has increased attacks in Pakistan. The TTP, like most Islamist militants in the region, was galvanized by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. It will be inspired to step up attacks in Pakistan. According to TTP data, it carried out 32 attacks in August alone—the highest monthly figure this year. An attack on Sept. 5 killed three Pakistani paramilitary forces.
Islamabad has a strong incentive to coax the Taliban into curbing the TTP. But with the Taliban no longer beholden to Pakistan, they have less of an interest to act on Islamabad’s request—especially because the TTP is a loyal, long-standing operational and ideological Taliban partner.
Future senior TTP commanders—including the group’s first supreme leader, Baitullah Mehsud—fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan before the TTP’s founding in 2007. Since then, the TTP has sent fighters to Afghanistan from Pakistan and staged joint attacks with the Taliban. Furthermore, the two groups share a goal of using violence to establish an emirate with draconian interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).
Since taking power, Taliban messaging on the TTP has been strikingly vague. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told a Pakistani TV channel that Afghan soil “will not be used by anyone to destroy the peace of another country.” But he also said Pakistan, not the Taliban, must decide “whether or not the TTP’s war is legitimate and to formulate a strategy in response.” The implication is the Taliban won’t take ownership of the issue.
The Taliban are keen to gain goodwill from the Afghan public, and they know many Afghans are mistrustful of Pakistan because of its sponsorship of the Taliban during the war. Several hundred Afghans staged anti-Pakistan protests in Kabul on Sept. 7. For this reason, the Taliban may not want to be seen doing Islamabad a major favor.
A Taliban refusal to rein in the TTP could strain a relationship with Islamabad that’s never been as symbiotic as many suggest. The two sides do disagree. Taliban leaders, like many Afghans, don’t recognize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (Islamabad does.) Mujahid recently criticized a new Pakistani border fence, which many in Afghanistan view as a move to legitimize a frontier they reject.
The Taliban’s reservations with Pakistan are long-standing and go beyond policy disputes. Taliban detainees quoted in a 2012 report prepared by NATO interrogators show little love for Pakistan: Low-level and high-level detainees alike described Pakistan as “untrustworthy,” “manipulative,” “controlling,” and “demeaning.” They also complained of Pakistan’s “willingness to immediately arrest any Taliban personnel deemed uncooperative.” These “personnel” include a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, arrested in 2002, and one of its founding leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who spent nearly a decade in a Pakistani prison.
All this said, neither Islamabad nor the Taliban want their relationship to lapse. The Taliban are Pakistan’s main conduit for influence and access in Afghanistan. Of particular importance to Pakistan is the Haqqani network, the Taliban’s most militarily and economically strong faction. It’s a group of brutal, battle-hardened fighters that have carried out some of the most sophisticated and biggest mass casualty attacks in Afghanistan. It’s also a private crime syndicate involved in numerous illicit industries in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The group has long had a presence in Pakistan’s tribal areas; its links to Pakistan go back to the 1980s, when it was a guerrilla force fighting the Soviet occupation and received Pakistani backing. With the Taliban having appointed two different Haqqani network leaders to their caretaker government—Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister and Khalil Haqqani (Sirajuddin’s uncle) as minister for refugees—the faction’s importance to Islamabad will remain strong.
The Taliban’s rise to power also gives Islamabad a prime opportunity to try to shape Afghan government policy and statecraft. Pakistan wants to ensure any footprint of India—deprived of a friendly government in Kabul for the first time in decades—is small. It also wants to work with its Chinese ally and increasingly close friend Russia to bring infrastructure and other investments into Afghanistan and develop new connectivity projects that stretch into Central Asia.
Such efforts would help advance Islamabad’s oft-stated goal of anchoring its foreign policy more to geoeconomic pursuits than to geopolitical ones. Additionally, Pakistan would view such efforts as a way to deny space to India, which also seeks to deepen its influence in Central Asia.
However, all of this requires a strong relationship with the Taliban government.
Islamabad also remains a crucial patron for the Taliban in many ways. Pakistan can be counted on to provide a welcoming environment for the Taliban at a moment when they are likely to be treated as a pariah by many—if not most—countries. Pakistan is one of the few nations in the world where the Taliban enjoy genuine support.
Despite Pakistani protestations that they have “no favorites” in Afghanistan, state and society alike clearly regard it as a favorite. Witness the words of support for the Taliban’s takeover from retired generals, political leaders, religious seminaries, and sports celebrities in Pakistan.
Such sentiment is reciprocated. In a recent Pakistani TV interview, Mujahid said Pakistan “is like a second home.” If war should ever resume and the Taliban need an external sanctuary, Pakistan would once again be their preferred home away from home.
Both parties seem to recognize that the dynamics of their relationship has changed, and the world is already starting to see a recalibration on both sides. Islamabad is transitioning from chief external sponsor of the Taliban’s conflict to chief external sponsor of their government. Look for Pakistan to establish new tools of leverage that replace those used during the war, which no longer apply.
These new levers of influence include a role as mediator. The director of Pakistan’s main spy agency, Faiz Hameed, was in Kabul in early September at a moment when different Taliban factions were disagreeing over the composition of their not-yet-finalized government.
It’s unclear whether he did indeed mediate this disagreement. Tellingly, however, just a few days after his arrival in Kabul, the Taliban announced their new interim government. Hameed has mediated delicate political disputes before, albeit at home. In 2017, he was involved in negotiations with Pakistani religious hard-liners who had staged a three-week sit-in in Islamabad.
Islamabad will also be the Taliban’s diplomatic booster—the nation that advocates on the Taliban’s behalf on the global stage. Pakistan’s national security advisor, Moeed Yusuf, recently warned that failing to engage with the Taliban regime could worsen global terrorism risks.
Additionally, as seen by Islamabad itself, expect Pakistan to serve as a military advisor, with its armed forces helping to “reorganise the Afghan military.” Pakistan’s military may also help train the Taliban to operate new weaponry—such as air power—they inherited but don’t know how to use.
Already, there are indications this recalibrated relationship is paying dividends for Pakistan. Taliban messaging in recent days has changed—and in ways that are music to Islamabad’s ears. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told the BBC the Taliban intend to “raise its voice” for Muslims in Kashmir—even though the Taliban have previously said they prefer not to get involved in the dispute. Additionally, a top Taliban official with the group’s political office offered China—Pakistan’s top ally—unusually detailed and effusive praise.
Perhaps most important, several top Taliban leaders believed to have less-than-cordial relations with Islamabad did not get top posts in the new caretaker cabinet announced on Sept. 7. And some of the very top postings went to those with close links to Pakistan. These include new Prime Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who headed the Taliban’s leadership council based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, as well as Sirajuddin and Khalil Haqqani.
All this said, a relationship repurposed for a post-conflict, Taliban-led Afghanistan may not have a long shelf life. The Taliban’s struggle to consolidate their power could lead to armed resistance and a reemergence of conflict. In that scenario, the relationship would revert to the status quo ante in a hurry—and establish yet another phase in a partnership destined to endure, warts and all.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman