Pakistan’s Support for the Taliban: What to Know
from Asia Program

Pakistan’s Support for the Taliban: What to Know

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meet in Kabul in 2020.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meet in Kabul in 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan’s government and military generally favored a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. But maintaining support for the Taliban is risky.

August 25, 2021 5:10 pm (EST)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meet in Kabul in 2020.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meet in Kabul in 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Why did Pakistani officials cheer the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?

It is important to note Pakistan’s government and military are not monolithic institutions but rather groups with competing interests. With that in mind, it is true that these groups were generally in favor of a Taliban victory. After the Taliban took over Kabul, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that the Taliban were “breaking the chains of slavery.”

There are three long-standing and overlapping reasons for Khan’s public show of support. First, Pakistan has vested ideological interests in the Taliban. Pakistan was created in 1947 as a Muslim nation and Islam was the glue that was supposed to hold together many otherwise disparate communities with diverse linguistic and ethnic identities. But this was a struggle. In 1971, after a bitter civil war, a large portion of Pakistani territory in the east dominated by the Bengali-speaking community broke away to become Bangladesh. That loss made the Pakistani government particularly paranoid about the western territories of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which have large Pashtun or Pashto-speaking populations. Pakistan established madrassas in these territories to emphasize and teach a particularly strict brand of Islam in the hopes that Islamic nationalism would suppress Pashtun nationalism. Taliban leaders, who also espouse Islamic nationalism, were trained in those madrassas.

Second, Pakistani officials worry about the border with Afghanistan and believe that a Taliban government could ease their concerns. Since 1947, Afghan governments have rejected the Durand Line, which separates Pakistani Pashtun-dominated territories from Afghanistan. Afghanistan, home to a Pashtun majority, claims these territories as a part of a “Pashtunistan” or traditional Pashtun homeland. Pakistan’s government believes that the Taliban’s ideology emphasizes Islam over Pashtun identity.

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Third, it is imperative for Pakistan to have a Pakistan-friendly government established in Afghanistan. Pakistan accuses India of seeking to exploit its ethnic and linguistic divisions to destabilize and break up the country. India’s good relationship with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government did nothing to assuage this concern. A Taliban government could help Pakistan counter India, including by providing a haven for anti-India jihadi groups.

How has Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban changed since 9/11? 

Pakistan continues to be a major source of financial and logistical support for the Taliban. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has supported the Taliban from their inception with money, training, and weaponry. The ISI also maintains strong ties with the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, a militant group that works closely with the Taliban. (Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, has also been a deputy leader of the Taliban since 2015.) The Taliban own real estate in Pakistan and receive large donations from private individuals in the country.

At the same time, under pressure from the United States, Pakistan has over the years detained—and allegedly tortured—Taliban commanders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban founder who is now back as one of the group’s chief leaders. Moreover, the current Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is reportedly more wary of the Taliban’s potential to destabilize Pakistan.

Going forward, Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban could decrease. The Taliban have been politically savvy in attempting to build ties with China, Iran, and Russia. If China, a close Pakistani ally, chooses to recognize the Taliban-led government, it will do so without enthusiasm for the virulent religious nationalism espoused by both the Taliban and Pakistan. This is because it could spill over into China’s Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has used claims of separatism to crack down on Uyghur Muslims.

What consequences could the Taliban takeover have for Pakistan?

Pakistan is playing a risky game in supporting the Taliban. Its goal to contain Pashtun nationalism and counter India by having a Pakistan-friendly government in Afghanistan does not account for either the quirks of the Taliban or the warring religious fundamentalist forces within Pakistan.

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Showing its sensitivity to the Durand Line, Pakistan has spent millions of dollars over the past few years to reinforce and demarcate the border. Yet, the Taliban, in conformity with other Afghan governments, have neither accepted the Durand Line nor Pakistan’s attempts to physically demarcate it. Nor have the Taliban ever renounced or condemned the Afghan goal of a Pashtunistan.

To complicate matters further, the Taliban maintain close ties with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), sometimes referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. The TTP comprises small Pashtun militant groups that are sympathetic to the Taliban, operate along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and vow to war with Pakistan until it secures an independent Pashtunistan. The TTP is responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Pakistani civilians. Recognizing the link between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, General Bajwa reportedly warned Pakistani lawmakers that the groups are “two faces of the same coin.”

Moreover, if Afghanistan once again descends into civil war, Pakistan will have to cope with another huge flow of refugees. Last year, an estimated 1.4 million Afghan refugees were living in the country.

Finally, Pakistan could jeopardize its relationship with China if Afghanistan (as well as Pakistan) becomes a haven for Muslim separatists, including disaffected Uyghurs from Xinjiang.

How could the United States and its allies work with Pakistan on the situation in Afghanistan? 

The United States faces a complex situation in South Asia, and in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan. The U.S. government has a long-standing record of investment in Pakistan in return for cooperation on terrorism, but this has yielded limited dividends given Pakistan’s own regional security interests.

Now, Washington has two additional elements to consider. The first is its deepening strategic partnership with India. Over the past few years, India has become more receptive to U.S. overtures for closer security ties. Given these gains in the U.S.-India relationship, the United States should be extremely careful in its relationship with Pakistan; any sense that Washington is not using what clout it has to rein in Pakistan’s backing of cross-border terrorism will jeopardize its relationship with New Delhi.

The second element is China’s growing interest in the region. Although the Chinese government is unlikely to stir up religious terrorism in the region, it will seek to work with the Taliban and possibly even incorporate Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Any U.S. strategy should seek to offset Chinese investments. And China also has clout with Pakistan. One option for the United States is to utilize China’s fears about religious nationalism and militancy spilling over from Afghanistan to initiate space for a U.S.-China-Pakistan cooperative strategy to pressure the Taliban. 

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