Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s persistent efforts to engage Pakistan to rectify its strategic mistakes in Afghan politics faced unmet expectations. In a critical meeting in May 2021 between Ghani, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hamid, and the UK’s chief of defense staff, general. Sir Nicholas Patrick Carter, it became evident that promises made by the Pakistani military were often diluted in its chain of command. Ghani noted a steady decline in implementation rates as orders passed from General Bajwa to General Faiz Hamid and subordinate field commanders. This decline, attributed to a sympathetic disposition by mid-level commanders toward the Taliban, underscored the complexities within the Pakistan military.
However, after the Taliban’s unexpected triumph in Afghanistan, the mood changed dramatically within Pakistan. A sense of victory, which freed Afghanistan from perceived oppression, generated celebrations and jubilation among military and political leaders. However, as the international community’s views shifted from jubilant acceptance to condemnation of the Taliban’s actions, Pakistan’s claims of being a victim of terrorism found little traction. Similar skepticism resonated within Pakistan, where doubts about the military’s narratives persisted.
Ghani’s insistence that Pakistan’s chosen military approach in Afghanistan represented a lose-lose scenario remained steadfast.
Pakistan and radicalization
After the Taliban took over Kabul, Pakistan witnessed a change that caused concern. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) saw nearly 40 allied groups join its ranks, leading to a rise in insecurity that was marked by a rise in suicide attacks. Pakistan now became the new battleground. The TTP’s emboldening fueled this transformation through the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, as Pakistan struggled with an intensifying phase of radicalization.
Strategically, the Pakistan army, faced with criticism and security failures, tried to divert the focus of its Afghan policy. The Afghan Taliban became the target of blame, with accusations of inaction against the TTP, which allegedly exploited Afghan soil for attacks inside Pakistan. By contrast, the Afghan Taliban dismissed the TTP as a domestic concern, revealing internal divisions and mutual distrust.
The TTP emerged as a more powerful force, showing greater sophistication in all areas: structural, communication and public relations. Driven by existing grievances and the marginalization of Pashtun and Baloch communities, the TTP took advantage of radicalized groups across Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. Can Pakistan effectively combat the TTP? The outlook is gloomy. Deep-rooted structural grievances, widespread radicalization and a certain degree of local sympathy play in the TTP’s favor. Noor Wali Mehsud, the emir of TTP, described the group’s resurgence in his book Inqilab Mehsud. The text emphasizes local alliances and organizational discipline, while reflecting the provincial structure of the Afghan Taliban with a focus on urban insurgency. Employing clever media tactics, the TTP strategically comments on financial, governance and corruption issues in order to garner public support.
The TTP harnesses a powerful narrative that resonates with Pakistanis, exploiting existing divisions and grievances while presenting the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan as a model of governance. In contrast, Pakistan’s current government narrative is weak due to economic struggles, governance failures, a fragmented political elite and social divisions. Events like those of May 9 in Pakistan underscore public frustration with the role of the military. Furthermore, the lack of support from the United States in terms of intelligence, drone operations and financial aid further aggravates Pakistan’s challenges.
A paradigm shift
A significant change in strategy has become evident. Pakistan’s historic quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan, which included backing non-state actors against friendly governments, has undergone notable alteration. The dynamic has reversed and the Afghan Taliban has secured a strategic foothold within Pakistan. This was achieved thanks to the support of entities such as the TTP and other radical groups operating within Pakistan. If the Taliban decides to take action against the TTP, they risk losing their influence against Pakistan in their future relations. The TTP, previously aligned with the Afghan Taliban, is now engaged in “jihad” inside Pakistan, signifying a multifaceted partnership that has spanned more than two decades.
There are several reasons why the Afghan Taliban cannot and will not take strong military action against the TTP. First, the Afghan Taliban avoids strong actions against the TTP to avoid internal division, avoiding the possible loss of its ranks to the TTP or other extremist factions such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and Al Qaeda. Second, the Taliban understand that antagonizing the TTP could result in the loss of safe havens along the Durand Line that they once used to confront international forces and Afghan security (all under the umbrella of the TTP ). The TTP has the capacity and a strategic geographic advantage that could challenge the Taliban’s authority in Afghanistan. If the dominance of the Afghan Taliban is challenged, the TTP has the potential to forge alliances with other groups to confront a formidable challenge. Third, Pakistan’s historic use of religious madrasas to exert influence and issue fatwas against Afghan governments is now in the hands of the Afghan Taliban. His extensive network established over the last 25 years in Pakistan, involving students, teachers and friends in thousands of madrasas, provides substantial support. Fourth, while Pakistan once tolerated public charity campaigns to fund the Afghan Taliban, according to many local sources, similar support is now flowing from Afghans to TTP groups, complicating the situation and indicating a paradigm shift .
Pakistan needs to introspect
Finding a way forward requires a thorough reassessment of Pakistan’s policy on cultivating radical Islamist groups, domestically and internationally, for foreign policy gains. In particular, while many nations that once supported the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion, including the Gulf States in the 1980s, have abandoned the practice of backing global jihadist and Islamist militant groups, Pakistan remains steadfast in continuing with this policy, a choice that now casts a shadow over the nation’s trajectory. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the era of globalization and economic growth, Pakistan has persisted in channeling its resources towards cultivating terrorist organizations. It is therefore imperative that the nation’s military redefines its role to prioritize the interests and well-being of the population, respecting the mandate of civilian governance.
The Pakistani army must lend its support and create a partnership with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). This movement advocates regional peace and opposes Pakistan’s dualist policy, which involves encouraging militancy to safeguard military interests along Pakistan’s Pakhtoon belt across the Durand Line.
Furthermore, the urgency to move away from export radicalism is underlined by the rampant radicalization within the country, widespread poverty, the beleaguered state of the economy and India’s continued advances. Pakistan is at a crossroads, where it is imperative to adopt a new path to ensure a more stable and prosperous future and establish working relations with its neighbors, specifically India and Afghanistan.
Tragically, the price of the recent abysmal policies carried out by the military leaders is borne by the innocent citizenry. It is disheartening to see people with abundant talent and resources grapple with the harsh reality of mere survival; and for some, even survival is a distant aspiration.
Aziz Amin is a Fellow of the Brenthurst Foundation. He has served as Principal Secretary and Special Assistant to former President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. Prior to this position, he worked for the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan as Deputy Director General, Director General of Public Communication and Donor Relations in the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, and Director of Research, Analysis and Policy Development of the Office of the president. Twitter: @iamazizamin