Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Pakistan Might Soon Regret Its Win in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover in Kabul has all the makings of a Pyrrhic victory.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Thousands of Taliban supporters rallied October 1, 2001 in the town of Quetta, Pakistan.
Thousands of Taliban supporters rallied October 1, 2001 in the town of Quetta, Pakistan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Last weekend, Pakistan’s spy chief Faiz Hameed sipped tea at the Serena Hotel in Kabul as he mediated between Taliban ruling factions quarrelling over shares of power in the next Afghan government. “Everything will be okay,” he said about Afghanistan’s future. A few days later, a slate of men were appointed to high office, all of whom had been sheltered by the Pakistani state for nearly two decades while Pakistan denied doing any such thing. 

As Hameed helped select designated terrorists to be the country’s top leaders, he showed little concern for what the West would think of him. Instead, he marched around Kabul exuding the confidence of a victor. He and his colleagues are patting themselves on the back for pushing out India—one of the leading allies of the recently deposed Afghan government— and creating a client state in Afghanistan of their own.

Pakistan’s deep state has indeed secured the expanded strategic reach it so desperately craved against India and will almost certainly use the Afghan territory as a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups, as it did the last time the Taliban were in power. Pakistan has also succeeded in proving its worth to the Chinese as a go-between and security guarantor. Beijing intends to mine minerals in the war-torn nation and spend billions of dollars building an economic corridor that runs through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia. 

Last weekend, Pakistan’s spy chief Faiz Hameed sipped tea at the Serena Hotel in Kabul as he mediated between Taliban ruling factions quarrelling over shares of power in the next Afghan government. “Everything will be okay,” he said about Afghanistan’s future. A few days later, a slate of men were appointed to high office, all of whom had been sheltered by the Pakistani state for nearly two decades while Pakistan denied doing any such thing. 

As Hameed helped select designated terrorists to be the country’s top leaders, he showed little concern for what the West would think of him. Instead, he marched around Kabul exuding the confidence of a victor. He and his colleagues are patting themselves on the back for pushing out India—one of the leading allies of the recently deposed Afghan government— and creating a client state in Afghanistan of their own.

Pakistan’s deep state has indeed secured the expanded strategic reach it so desperately craved against India and will almost certainly use the Afghan territory as a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups, as it did the last time the Taliban were in power. Pakistan has also succeeded in proving its worth to the Chinese as a go-between and security guarantor. Beijing intends to mine minerals in the war-torn nation and spend billions of dollars building an economic corridor that runs through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia. 

But what counts as an achievement for Pakistan’s political establishment may prove a tragedy for Pakistan’s people. There are growing reasons to worry about the security blowback from having an Islamic emirate next door. Meanwhile, the voices of those who seek the imposition of all-out sharia rule in Pakistan in emulation of the Taliban will become ever louder. 

Decades of active Islamization has turned a large number of Pakistanis toward a more religious outlook, altering the social mores of a culturally diverse society. As the Taliban unleash their own particular brand of Islamism in Afghanistan, it’s inevitable that Pakistan will also become more radicalized. 

Amir Rana, a Pakistani security analyst, said as more and more Pakistanis seek inspiration from the Taliban it might prove hard to combat narratives that propagate a more religious state and society. “The Taliban will become the sole source of inspiration for confused Pakistani youth,” he said. “Religious parties are already celebrating. It will Talibanize Pakistan further. The Taliban’s increasing popularity will also make other [non-Sunni] sects feel insecure. These tensions may exacerbate sectarian tensions,” and overall make society more intolerant. 

The Taliban could well be an asset for Pakistan’s political establishment in its anti-India endeavors, but it’s doubtful the strategic benefits will extend much further. According to a Pakistani source who wished to remain anonymous, Pakistan may offer a base to the United States to take on the Islamic State-Khorasan, the terrorist group that most recently attacked Kabul airport and killed more than a hundred people, including 13 American soldiers. It is also trying to present itself as a mediator between the West and the Taliban, the interlocutor who can encourage the group to reform. But few in the West believe Pakistan’s promises any longer. Pakistan’s provision of sanctuary to the Taliban has soured its ties with the United States to such an extent that U.S. President Joe Biden has not called Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan even once since he replaced Donald Trump. 

Moreover, there are signs that the Taliban might be less obsequious in following the orders of their prime patron that Pakistan expects, at least to maintain the pretense of independence in front of fellow Afghans. Pakistan is extremely unpopular in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are careful not to be seen as its puppets. They are already reluctant to concede to Pakistan’s core security issues when it comes to ending support for and handing over anti-Pakistan terrorists. “We are not Pakistan’s puppets, we are independent,” a Taliban leader told Foreign Policy from Kabul on condition of anonymity. “And yes, we have very good relations with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” 

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members were trained and educated at the same religious seminaries that produced the Afghan Taliban. This group, however, was composed of Pashtun Islamists . It carried out some of the most horrific attacks against Pakistanis, even killing schoolchildren, and was eventually pushed by Pakistan’s armed forces into Afghanistan. But over the last year, as their Afghan contemporaries started the campaign to recapture Afghanistan, TTP’s attacks once again picked up. It carried out 32 attacks inside Pakistan in just the last month. TTP is evidence of the domestic blowback of Pakistan’s policies, yet independent experts fear that the generals see dead Pakistanis as mere collateral damage and have been reluctant to change their policy of proxy warfare. 

According to a recent report prepared for the United Nations Security Council, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban have carried on “relations mainly as before.” The UN monitors observed that TTP supported Afghan Taliban militarily against Afghan government forces in the recent takeover. “The Pakistani state accused the elected Afghan governments of supporting TTP all these years; in fact TTP fought alongside the Afghan Taliban,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani Pashtun leader and intellectual. “That is one indicator of just how wrong a policy our deep state pursued.” 

Since the Taliban’s return to power, TTP has moderated its stance. It says it now wants autonomy in the tribal areas along the border, the heartland of the Pakistani Pashtuns, which it wants to govern under Islamic law, just as their brethren will from now on across the border. The Afghan Taliban have not clarified their position on TTP but have said they wish for open border crossings with Pakistan at least on the 1,640-mile stretch that is inhabited by Pashtuns on both sides. 

Khattak said that the whole idea behind propping up and sustaining the Taliban was to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate with a leadership that gave precedence to its religious identity over its ethnic one and saw itself as Muslim first, not Afghan. An insecure deep state was paranoid about losing another part of the country, this time to Pashtun ethnic nationalism, since it lost East Pakistan to Bangladeshi nationalists in 1971. It has been terrified of cultural affinity and opted for a policy of spreading religious homogenization under dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.  

“Pakistan’s policy was to use the Taliban to deconstruct Afghan identity, demolish everything that represented Afghanistan,” Khattak said. “Among the first things the Taliban did as it took power in the ’90s were to rename Afghan radio as Sharia radio, destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, ban Navroj, the new year festival that dates back thousands of years, changed the Afghan flag, and said no to jirgas, which were traditionally peoples’ assemblies where Afghans discussed political matters.”

In their first stint in power, the Taliban quelled Afghan nationalism and unveiled total and extreme Islamization of Afghanistan. Through the years, it attacked secular Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan, too. But over time the group has also witnessed the exploitative side of its Pakistani handlers. The Taliban know that Pakistan has huge economic leverage over a landlocked Afghanistan, but as they establish themselves in power in their own right, they may want to use TTP as leverage against their masters, who provided shelter but also treated many of their leaders poorly. 

Even if they shun a Pashtun separatist identity, that ethnic link will remain a source of consternation for Pakistan’s generals. Would Pakistan be willing to keep the borders open and de facto hand over control to TTP? 

Pakistan’s liberals will continue to resist the Talibanization of Pakistan—although they are now in the weakest position they have been in for decades, so this may not overtly matter to Pakistan’s deep state. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s return may yet be a Pyrrhic victory for the deep state, too. The ideas that conceived the Taliban have also been steadily gnawing at the foundations of the state they believe they are securing.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?