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Pakistan’s strategic morass in Afghanistan

Given the past cordial relations between Pakistan and the Taliban, the recent hostility between the two is an intriguing development. The Pakistani Taliban has become the central point of contention between the two. Pakistan is accusing the Afghan Taliban of providing sanctuaries to some 6,000 armed Pakistani Taliban who are undermining Pakistan’s security. It’s a reversal from before the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan when it was Kabul that accused Pakistan of harbouring terrorists who threatened Afghanistan’s security. Understanding the context of this turnaround is essential for conceiving a long-term solution to the menace of Islamist fanaticism in both countries. 

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, like their first in 1996, seemed to be the fulfillment of Pakistan’s foreign policy quest to install a Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul. The Taliban were long seen as the instruments of that policy and treated in Pakistan as if they were players of the home team. A survey showed that 55 percent of Pakistanis were happy with the 2021 takeover. In addition, Pakistani government officials and diplomats defended Taliban policies at international meetings, peddling the argument that the Taliban’s barbaric practices should be seen and accommodated by the world as Afghanistan’s “distinctive cultural reality.” 

Now political reality has sunk in that the Taliban mullacracy in Afghanistan threatens Pakistan itself – the Pakistani government seems not to have learned from history and is on a path to make even more political blunders. For one, to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has cracked down on Afghan refugees living within its borders. It has forcefully deported more than half a million, creating countless tales of misery and intensifying the already brutal poverty in Afghanistan. Pakistan started its second phase of deportation on April 15, this time intending to deport an additional one million refugees. 

Deportation and maltreatment of poor refugees will not solve Pakistan’s security problems. It is important to understand that the country’s security predicaments are of its own making. The Pakistani state historically supported the rise and growth of Islamist militancy, in line with the Western powers’ support for Islamism as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Muslim world. 

The Pakistani security strategists labelled their policy of support for extremism in Afghanistan as “strategic depth.” Pakistan became the primary state backer of jihadist violence against the Soviet Union and its allied regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During this time, Pakistan encouraged the establishment of hundreds of madrasas clustered close to Afghan borders, which taught fundamentalist ideology to refugees as well as Pakistani children. The madrasas mass-produced foot soldiers and organizers for the continuation of jihad; both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are its products. 

Hindsight shows that the geniuses behind the “strategic depth” had not thoroughly considered all the implications of their policy though its dangers were very predictable to all sane observers. One of them, the eminent Pakistani scholar, Eqbal Ahmad, wrote for Dawn in 1998: “The Taliban are the expression of a modern disease, symptoms of social cancer which shall destroy Muslim societies if its growth is not arrested, and the disease is not eliminated. It is prone to spreading, and the Taliban will be the most deadly communicators of this cancer if they remain so organically linked to Pakistan.” 

Now, the cancer has spread, just as Eqbal Ahmad warned. Emboldened and strengthened by the victory in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) have increased their activities in Pakistan, which is why the Pakistani government has demanded the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan to to choose between the government of Pakistan and the TTP, and also take military action against its Pakistani brethren. 

Excusing themselves from heeding the Pakistani demands, the Taliban leadership has insisted that they are lacking the “capacity” to contain the TTP. It would be naive to expect that the Afghan Taliban would declare war on TTP. They are organically united as part of the same movement. Their unity is cemented by the allegiance of the entire Taliban movement to one supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah. If the Taliban leadership declared war on the TTP, the resultant confrontation could split apart their organization and at the same time tarnish their reputation among global jihadists.

Their doctrinal beliefs do not allow them to ask the TTP to suspend their jihad. That is not within their capacity because asking jihadist brothers not to perform what they all see as a religious obligation would go against their fundamental belief system, and would be seen as apostasy. Therefore, the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has merely asked the TPP to reduce their violence and negotiate with the government in Pakistan. Complicating that position is the fact that the fundamental beliefs of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban deem that the Pakistani constitution is unIslamic. Thus, this situation obliges “true believers” to wage jihad for the implementation of sharia law.  

Talibanism is the most retrograde political movement in the history of our region. Its core aim is to establish a system of tyranny that disenfranchises people. It truly is a “social cancer,” and should be treated as such. As long as the Taliban are in power in Afghanistan, both countries shall remain the incubators of this political menace. 

The struggle against the dangers of Talibanism should unite the masses in both countries. The people of Pakistan owe it to future generations to understand that the victory of the struggle for freedom, democracy, and secularism in Afghanistan is necessary for a peaceful, prosperous, free, and democratic Pakistan. Only then can we see a new and different dawn for all the peoples of the region.    

Hamayon Rastgar is the communications officer at Zan Times.