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A Taliban Takeover Will Strengthen Pakistan’s Jihadis

Islamabad cheered the fall of Kabul, but the new Afghan regime will embolden domestic terrorist groups that could threaten the Pakistani state.

By , a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
People gather around a Taliban flag near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan, on Aug. 17.
People gather around a Taliban flag near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan, on Aug. 17. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Despite helping the Taliban to revive their Islamist insurgency and ultimately win the war, Pakistan was always reticent about the revival of the group’s self-styled Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Pakistan articulated this position at an April meeting with U.S., Chinese, and Russian officials, where it opposed, along with others, any government established by force in Afghanistan.

The announcement left the Taliban, who expected outright support from Pakistan, angry and alienated. To add insult to injury, Pakistan’s National Security Committee decided on Aug. 16 against immediately recognizing the Taliban government and urged for an inclusive government representing all Afghan factions.

Now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan with rapid speed and are moving toward declaring their so-called Islamic Emirate, the development will have far-reaching implications for Pakistan’s jihadi landscape. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the accompanying triumphant narrative are a boon for the Pakistani jihadis. They will draw strength and inspiration from the Taliban’s victory to fuel recruitment, funding, and increase their violent activities inside Pakistan. In fact, it is already happening.

Despite helping the Taliban to revive their Islamist insurgency and ultimately win the war, Pakistan was always reticent about the revival of the group’s self-styled Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Pakistan articulated this position at an April meeting with U.S., Chinese, and Russian officials, where it opposed, along with others, any government established by force in Afghanistan.

The announcement left the Taliban, who expected outright support from Pakistan, angry and alienated. To add insult to injury, Pakistan’s National Security Committee decided on Aug. 16 against immediately recognizing the Taliban government and urged for an inclusive government representing all Afghan factions.

Now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan with rapid speed and are moving toward declaring their so-called Islamic Emirate, the development will have far-reaching implications for Pakistan’s jihadi landscape. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the accompanying triumphant narrative are a boon for the Pakistani jihadis. They will draw strength and inspiration from the Taliban’s victory to fuel recruitment, funding, and increase their violent activities inside Pakistan. In fact, it is already happening.


Pakistan and the Taliban have a long history. Pakistan’s government financially and materially supported the Afghan Taliban’s movement in taking control of Afghanistan and establishing its Islamic Emirate in 1996. Pakistan was one of the three countries, alongside the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to recognize the Afghan Taliban’s government.

In the late 1990s, Riaz Basra, the head of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan—an anti-Shiite extremist group—carried out terrorist attacks in Pakistan while living under Taliban protection in Afghanistan. Despite repeated Pakistani requests, the Taliban never handed him over to the Pakistani authorities.

Following his expulsion from Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, personally tasked the Pakistani militant commander Nek Muhammad with arranging the accommodation of the Afghan, Central Asian, and al Qaeda militants in Pakistan’s tribal region, then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

To keep India out of Afghanistan, Pakistan assisted the Afghan Taliban without thinking through the long-term negative consequences of this strategy for its internal security.

In the early 2000s, the Pakistan Army’s decision to station troops in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region to stop cross-border militant movement triggered a violent campaign by tribal jihadis against the state. Subsequently, these jihadis assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, targeted the military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009, and Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in 2014.

After the Afghan Taliban regime was toppled due to U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani tribal jihadis provided refuge to the fleeing Taliban. (They subsequently formed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, in December 2007.) Arguably, the Afghan Taliban will now return the favor by providing havens to the Pakistani Taliban under their regime.

For two decades, Pakistan’s Afghan policy has been driven by the singular objective of keeping India out of Afghanistan. Pakistan alleges that India used Afghanistan as a springboard to destabilize Pakistan by funding and arming Baloch separatist groups and some factions of the Pakistani Taliban. To keep India out of Afghanistan, Pakistan assisted the Afghan Taliban without thinking through the long-term negative consequences of this strategy for its internal security.

Until recently, Pakistan never broadened its Afghan policy beyond the narrow security lens fixated on India nor diversified its ties with other Afghan ethnic and political groups, leaving it entirely dependent on the Pashtun Taliban. In the last two years, Pakistan’s military establishment has invited different Afghan ethnic and political leaders for visits to develop its relationships with them. For instance, in June, a highway in Islamabad was named after the former Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Pakistan has also announced a policy of having no favorites in Afghanistan. However, critics view this supposed last-minute policy change from Pakistan as too little too late.


In July, Pakistan’s top military leadership convened for a closed briefing in the parliament to discuss Afghanistan’s evolving situation; they termed the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban as ideological twins. The announcement was a surprise departure from Pakistan’s long-standing policy of maintaining an imaginary division between the two groups.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban share close ideological, ethnic, and organizational linkages. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban draw their ideological inspiration from their Afghan counterparts and consider the latter’s emir as their own and pledge their oaths of allegiance to him. Likewise, members of both groups inhabit the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region alongside al Qaeda.

The Taliban-TTP bond was strengthened further in 2015 after the latter relocated to eastern Afghanistan following the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the FATA region. Zarb-e-Azb was launched after TTP militants massacred 143 students at a school in Peshawar in December 2014. The aim of the operation was to clear the FATA region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of the TTP’s presence.

Since September 2001, Pakistan’s Afghan policy has been driven by the singular objective of keeping India out of Afghanistan.

To date, the Afghan Taliban, with the exception of the Peshawar school carnage, have never condemned the Pakistani Taliban’s terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. Furthermore, they have never taken any action against the latter, barring some clashes this July in eastern Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, the Taliban’s attempt to register foreign jihadis in Afghanistan and attempts to enforce a code of conduct led to these clashes.

On the contrary, the splinter factions of the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that defected to the Islamic State were ruthlessly crushed by the former. The Taliban’s brutal reprisals against pro-Islamic State factions underscore that they will suppress only those groups that seek to challenge their turf and monopoly in Afghanistan.

In response to Pakistan’s apprehensions concerning the TTP, the Taliban’s boilerplate response has been that Afghanistan’s soil under their rule will not be used against any other country. The Taliban gave similar assurances to the United States regarding al Qaeda under the Doha Agreement.

However, evidence points to a polar opposite reality, where ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda have further strengthened. The Taliban’s vague assurances only reinforce Pakistan’s fears of facing a jihadi blowback. In the past, the Taliban have used the TTP as leverage to get even with Pakistan. More recently, the Taliban encouraged the TTP to increase its violent attacks in Pakistan in retaliation for Islamabad’s granting of permission for U.S. forces to use its airspace to conduct airstrikes to target Taliban territorial advances in Afghanistan.

Contrary to the general perception that Pakistan pulls the Taliban’s string, the former’s influence over the latter has waned over the last few years. The Taliban’s territorial gains in Afghanistan, financial self-sufficiency, and diversified ties with other regional countries have minimized their dependence on Pakistan.

The Pakistan-Taliban equation is a marriage of convenience based on a narrow convergence of interests in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan-Taliban equation is a marriage of convenience based on a narrow convergence of interests in Afghanistan. They do not see eye to eye on all issues. On Aug. 6, the Taliban closed the Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, which the group seized recently, demanding visa-free movement of Afghan people to and from Pakistan, which Islamabad does not want. The Taliban also threatened to stop Pakistan’s trade with Kabul and Central Asia.

Even though the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders and their families still live in Pakistan, they only listen to those Pakistani demands that are consistent with their strategic interests and ideological worldview. For instance, in 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government asked Pakistan to facilitate its dialogue with the Taliban to improve bilateral ties. However, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was ready to leave Quetta instead of acquiescing to the incessant Pakistani pressure to talk to Ghani.

To accommodate Pakistani demands, the Taliban allowed a group under Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai to meet a delegation from Kabul in Murree, a hill resort near Islamabad, in an individual capacity. The Taliban officially distanced themselves from that meeting and clarified that only the group’s Qatar Office was the right forum to decide on such matters. Subsequently, Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Balochistan while returning from Iran.

Giving an interview to CNN in July, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud changed tack from the terrorist group’s long-standing position of Islamizing Pakistan through armed struggle and demanded separation of the ex-FATA region to form a Pashtun homeland. Pashtuns make up 25 percent of Pakistan’s population; they are the largest ethnic group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ex-FATA region, and Balochistan’s northern belt.

Soon after its creation in 1947, Pashtunistan was a major bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul rejected the Durand Line—the 1893 agreement that divided ethnic Pashtuns living on both sides of 1,600-mile-long border separating Afghanistan from what was then British India (present-day Pakistan).

Though Islamabad considers the Durand Line a legitimate border, Kabul rejects it on the grounds that any agreement between British India and Afghanistan became null and void after the former ceased to exist. In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan supported Pakistani Pashtun separatists seeking to merge Pakistan’s Pashtun-majority areas with Afghanistan. The Pashtunistan issue became dormant during the Afghan wars and the global war on terrorism.

The TTP’s decision to switch to ethnoseparatism while using jihadism as a means to revive the idea of Pashtunistan is bad news for Islamabad. Just as the Taliban leadership stayed in Pakistan and directed their insurgency in Afghanistan, the TTP’s top leadership will now run their separatist jihadi struggle in Pakistan through its Afghan sanctuaries under Taliban protection.

Pakistan got what it wished for in Afghanistan; however, the price for the Pakistani obsession with keeping India out of Afghanistan will be high when it comes to the country’s internal security.

Ironically, Islamabad sought strategic depth against New Delhi by supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide Pakistani jihadis with the strategic depth to launch attacks against Islamabad.

For Pakistan, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Abdul Basit is a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher

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