Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban: Separating fact from fiction

Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban: Separating fact from fiction

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On October 6, the Taliban unilaterally closed the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing suspending people’s movement and regular Pakistan-Afghanistan trade. Subsequently, on October 14, Pakistan International Airlines also halted its flight operations to Kabul over the Afghan aviation authorities’ demand to slash airfares. The two incidents have brought into sharp focus the issue of Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban and the nature of their relationship once again. Against this backdrop, it is essential to separate fact from fiction to put the dynamic of Pakistan-Taliban ties in their proper perspective. 
Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban in Western media, think tanks and policy circles is exaggerated and grossly misunderstood. A dispassionate and deeper analysis reveals that the Pakistan-Taliban relationship is more complex and conflict-ridden than a linear patron-proxy equation. Arguably, Pakistan’s symbiotic influence over the Taliban has been neither unlimited nor friction-free. On the contrary, notwithstanding some tactical convergences, the Taliban only listen to Pakistan when it suits their strategic and ideological interests. 
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August, the Pakistan-Taliban relationship has undergone a fundamental shift. For instance, Pakistan’s reluctance to immediately recognize the Taliban government, unlike the 1990s, highlights the changing dynamic of their ties. Instead of approaching its ties with the Taliban unilaterally, Pakistan is adopting a regional approach. Similarly, the Taliban’s desire to forge constructive relations with India and unequivocal stance not to be dragged into the India-Pakistan bilateral dispute over Kashmir also underscores the evolving nature of Pakistan-Taliban ties. 
Historically, Pakistan-Taliban ties have remained fractious and patchy. For instance, like all other Afghan governments, the Taliban did not recognize the Durand Line as an internationally recognized border during their first regime from 1996 to 2001. Likewise, despite repeated demands, the Taliban refused to hand over Pakistan’s then most-wanted militant and head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Riaz Basra, who masterminded several high-profile terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghanistan. Basra lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s protection. 

The Taliban’s dilly-dallying on Pakistani demands to take action against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is similar to how they reacted to Pakistani concerns regarding Riaz Basra.

Abdul Basit Khan

The same was the case in the immediate aftermath of Al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. The Taliban turned down Pakistani requests to hand over Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden to the US to avoid military intervention. Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, after facing the “with us or against us” ultimatum, created a lot of resentment and mistrust in the Taliban. 
The post-9/11 Pakistan-Taliban cooperation was based on a narrow convergence of interests that ended with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. In retrospect, Pakistan needed a partner to minimize and eventually eliminate Indian influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad holds Delhi responsible for supporting and funding Baloch insurgent groups in Afghanistan for militant operations in Balochistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban needed a space to regroup, revive and relaunch their insurgency against the US. The Taliban’s ethnic and geographical linkages in Pakistan, the porous nature of the Pak-Afghan border, and around four million Afghan refugees provided the Taliban with enough depth in Pakistan to successfully relaunch and manage their insurgency in Afghanistan. However, this does not mean they were entirely dependent on Pakistan. 
In 2013, the Pakistan-Taliban relationship underwent a significant shift following the Obama administration’s announcement of withdrawing from Afghanistan by reaching a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The Taliban’s decision to open their political office in Doha, Qatar, in June 2013 was a move to break free from the already limited Pakistani influence and negotiate with the US independently. The Taliban’s Qatar office enabled them to diversify their ties with other regional countries, further minimizing their dependence on Pakistan. 
In 2015, the emergence of Daesh Khorasan acted as a catalyst in further deepening the Taliban’s engagement with Iran, China and Russia. These regional countries opened up to the Taliban to keep Daesh-K’s growing footprint in Afghanistan under check and push the US out of Afghanistan. 
In 2015, the Taliban under Mullah Akhtar Mansoor defied Pakistani pressure of talking to the Ashraf Ghani regime. After assuming power in September 2014, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reached out to Pakistan to assist in talking to the Taliban. The Taliban unofficially sent a delegation under Maulvi Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai to meet with President Ghani’s team on Pakistan’s constant pressure. Known as the Murree Peace Process, the meeting took place on the outskirts of Islamabad. 
During this period, the Taliban were ready to relocate their Quetta Shoura from Balochistan rather than bow to Pakistani strong-arm tactics. Later, in a statement, the Taliban’s Qatar Office clarified that the Taliban delegation participated in the Murree Process in their individual capacity and did not represent the official position of the Islamic Emirate. The statement maintained only the Taliban’s Qatar office was responsible for official negotiations. Subsequently, Mansoor was killed in a US drone strike in 2016 near Balochistan while returning from Iran. 
Likewise, the Taliban’s dilly-dallying on Pakistani demands to expel or take action against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is similar to how they reacted to Pakistani concerns regarding Riaz Basra. For instance, on August 28, during an interview with a Pakistan news channel, the Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “TTP issue is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani ulema and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response.” 
Recent hiccups in Pakistan-Taliban ties demonstrate continuity rather than an anomaly of a trouble-prone relation. In the near future, the Pakistan-Taliban relationship will evolve, further dispelling the myth of the latter’s unconditional subservience to the former. 
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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