Meanwhile… in the heart of Asia: Pakistan slides into its own trap
It looks like Pakistani elites have been fatally mistaken about the Taleban and Afghanistan. Pakistani policy has always defined Afghanistan as its strategic depth. It is into the abyss of this "depth" that Pakistan now risks plunging.
On February 22, 2023, a high-level delegation led by Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif travelled unannounced to Kabul to discuss "security issues" with the Taleban. Asif was accompanied by Islamabad's Special Representative for Afghanistan Sadiq Khan, Foreign Ministry Chief Secretary Asad Majid and Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI. The Afghan side was represented by Taleban Deputy Prime Minister Molla Abdoll Ghani Baradar, Defence Minister Maulawi Mohammad Ya'qoob Mojahed, Interior Minister Serajoddin Haqqani and Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi.
The official statement released by the Taleban afterwards was somewhat restrained. It stated that both sides had held positive talks on economic and security issues, but the real gist of the discussion revolved around one issue only: the TTP (Tehrike Talebane Pakistan). This was communicated later in the statement issued by Pakistan's Foreign Ministry – that the growing TTP and IS-K threat was discussed and that “the two sides agreed to collaborate to effectively address the threat of terrorism”.
The Pakistanis had come with the aim of bringing their former protégées to "their senses", but they apparently did not succeed in accomplishing this. Defence Minister Asif presented a dossier of "irrefutable evidence" of the presence of hideouts of the banned TTP and the exact whereabouts of its leadership in Afghanistan. The Taleban, for their part, promised to cooperate with the Pakistani government to address its concerns about the presence of militants of the banned TTP and their havens on Afghan soil. What this cooperation would look like, they told the Pakistanis a day later… Apparently, the Taleban are willing to disarm the TTP fighters and relocate them from the areas around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – as long as Pakistan assumes all the costs.
With this, the Taleban have demonstrated that they learned their lessons well from their ex-mentors and can play with the same deck of cards that Pakistan played with for 40 years. Islamabad has not yet reacted in this regard. The Taleban are well aware of the desolate state of Pakistan's finances. Three days earlier, the same Asif had said in a speech at a private university function in Sialkot that "...Pakistan is already insolvent" and "...you may have learnt that Pakistan is going bankrupt or that a default or meltdown is taking place. It has already taken place. We are living in a bankrupt country."
According to inside sources who wish to remain anonymous, the talks were anything but "friendly". After Asif had presented the "irrefutable evidence", it was categorically rejected by Molla Baradar. Apparently the "irrefutable evidence" was not irrefutable enough for the Taleban, as they told the Pakistanis that they could not take action against the TTP until they were provided with concrete evidence. This was followed by a heated exchange of words between the two parties. ISI chief Nadeem Ahmad Anjum issued a threat: that Pakistan would be able to take action against the TTP anywhere, and that if the Taleban do not cut their affiliation with the TTP, Afghanistan would face civil war in spring.
"Don’t threaten Us. [...] The world knows what happened to the Americans", Molla Yaqoob, the Taleban defence minister, responded. In a photograph, Anjum's bitterness is clearly visible on his face, and according to eyewitnesses, the Pakistani delegation departed with "long faces", looking extremely dissatisfied.
"We can facilitate peace talks between Islamabad and TTP, but cannot take action as TTP is our only alliance partner," the Taleban explained. This means that the Taleban do not see Pakistan as their ally (any longer).
Since they came to power, the Taleban have repeatedly stressed that they would not allow any hostile attacks to occur on other countries that would operate from Afghan soil… despite the fact that they continue to harbour numerous combat and terrorist groups and organisations hailing from Central Asian countries and China, which – according to unconfirmed sources – they have strategically stationed along the borders in northern Afghanistan. So far, however, there have not been any known cases of attacks or infiltration of militants into other countries. Reports that terrorists from Afghanistan were involved in the unrest in Kazakhstan two years ago remain speculations. Extraditions of the fighters to their respective countries, as China once demanded of them, remain out of the question for the Taleban – at least for the time being. Nevertheless, they could very well disarm the fighters and force them to either leave the country for third countries or at least to abandon their activities... In any case, the very existence of these groups poses a threat to neighbouring states. But, given the geopolitical-strategic goals of the US in the region, its non-transparent links to the Taleban and the ambiguous relations of the Taleban with neighbouring states and with Russia, maintaining this potential expedient makes sense to the Taleban so far. The Realm of the Taleban is a waiting room, an antechamber to hell. A Kafkaesque state of affairs…
The Taleban's relationship with the TTP is a different kettle of fish.
The Afghan Taleban and the Pakistani Taleban share more than just a religious ideology. They see themselves as one and the same people (and they are), forcibly separated by colonialism. In their eyes, the divisionary line – the Durand Line, drawn in the 19th century by the British colonial regime between "British India" and the Afghan non-sovereign kingdom under the thumb of the tyrant Amir Abdoll Rahman and accepted by him – was an act of treachery. While the Pashtuns see Afghanistan as a natural entity and legitimate legacy from their founding father Ahmad Khan Abdali (18th century), they see the country and state of Pakistan as a construct that was artificially created by the British (although the same also applies more or less to Afghanistan). The dream of every Pashtun nationalist has always been, and still remains, to surmount this dividing line and create a single "Leu-Afghanistan" (Great Afghanistan) or "Leu-Pashtunistan" (Great Pashtunistan) at the expense of Pakistan and its non-Pashtun population. This circumstance has repeatedly led to tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past century.
Today, the Pashtuns see themselves one step closer to this goal. In their minds, the conditions have never been so favourable as they are now. The Taleban, however, are torn and divided internally, though they try to present themselves as united externally. It is understandable that certain states in the region now see, more clearly than ever before, the dangerous role that Pakistan has been playing in the region since its inception. These states are India, Iran, Russia. The "side" within the Taleban that they deal with is the official leadership (Molla Haibatollah and the group around him). For others, such as the USA and the UK, Pakistan's "expiry date" may have already passed, and they may see more benefits in the instability, weakening or even disappearance of Pakistan. In that case, would the Afghanistan of the Taleban become the replacement of the "former gendarme of the West"? … "Wallaho a'lam!", as a Taleb would say ("Only God knows!").
Pakistan is currently mired in serious economic, financial, political and social difficulties. In the past, it had greatly benefited from the Cold War, from the antagonism between India and China, from the 10-year war in Afghanistan and recently from the "US/NATO war on terror" in Afghanistan; and it has always been a strong ally of the affluent Gulf states: From all these sides, the country – or rather its military apparatus and its political establishment – was showered with money. The personal and real estate assets of 9 generals alone (5 retired, 4 still in office) amount to $310 billion… while Pakistan's national budget for the financial year 2022-2023 is Rs 9.5 trillion (US$ 115,058,775,000), of which Rs 1.523 trillion (US$ 18,447,748,710) is allotted for defence. Retired military pensions of Rs600 billion (US$ 7,267,926,000) are paid from the state budget instead of the military budget. The military owns or controls almost the entire economy and pockets enormous revenues without having to submit any statements of accounts. The army numbers 1.43 million men, including the reservists.
When the IMF imposed a condition on Pakistan to disclose the income of politicians and army generals, the government refused to comply, saying such an undertaking would plunge the country into civil war.
Pakistan's state system is officially federal… but decisions on important issues, especially economic ones, are virtually made by the military, bypassing the constitution. No politician can govern against the interests of the army. If anyone dares to do so, he is voted out, or a replacement is produced (as in the cases of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan) by any means necessary.
Ever since its founding in 2007, the TTP has waged a merciless war against the government that has ended up costing ca. 80,000 lives – a toll much higher than the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 (in which ca. 9,000 died).
In May 2022, through the mediation of the Afghan Taleban, a "ceasefire" was brokered between the Pakistani government and the TTP, but it was short-lived. On 18th November 2022, the TTP unilaterally called off the ceasefire and declared Pakistan's elites as targets of their attacks. But soon afterwards its suicide bombers went after the population and members of the police and the armed forces. Since then, the country has been rocked by an endless series of brutal attacks. The most recent attack occurred on January, 30, 2023 in Peshawar in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, at a mosque in a heavily guarded police headquarters compound, which killed 101 people (including the perpetrator). Government leaders in Islamabad now see that the negotiations and the ceasefire were a mistake… as they ultimately allowed the TTP to reorganise and regroup its forces.
The collapse of the Afghan state in 2021, the subsequent fall of Kabul and the takeover of power by the Taleban in Afghanistan were celebrated by the Pakistanis (understandably) as "their" victory. The then ISI chief Faiz Hameed turned up in Kabul unannounced on 4th September 2021 and raised his tea cup (with a grin!) to celebrate the day, while telling a reporter: "Don't worry… everything will be okay", which led Kawaja Asif in the National Assembly of Pakistan to protest that former army chief Qamar Bajwa and former ISI director general Faiz Hameed had previously told the parliament that the Taliban had become "good people" and that "they would live peacefully in the country"… adding: “What happened then? Is there anyone to hold them accountable? As many as 86,000 people lost their lives due to terrorism, but the two people compromised" (with the terrorists) – [meaning the TTP]."
The TTP, which was trained and indoctrinated in the same institutions as the Afghan Taleban, celebrated the "triumph" of the Taleban in Afghanistan as their own. It is now their intention to perfect this "triumph" with their victory over the Pakistani state. Their first goal is to reclaim the "stolen" autonomy of the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where they intend to introduce Sharia laws similar to those in Afghanistan. (It is worth remembering that there are about 30,000 thousand religious schools in Pakistan, which, together, churn out thousands of newly indoctrinated Taleban every year.)
The boomerang is on its return path
Forty years of nurturing, funding, training and supporting terrorism, religious extremism and betraying its own people is now backfiring on Pakistan's elites and, worse, dealing heavy blows to its betrayed people.
The leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are facing intractable problems of their own making.
The strange and still unresolved US "speedy decampment" from Afghanistan and the subsequent takeover of power and control by the Taleban, has had an enormously positive and motivating psychological effect not only on the Taleban themselves and the TTP, but on the entire Islamist/Jihadist forces throughout the world. (Could that have also been an aim of the US?) The TTP had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan Taleban in Afghanistan and delivered its own sacrifices (with the blessing and support of the ISI and the Pakistani government, of course).
The Taleban define their system of rule as an "Emârat" and call their leader, the Molla Haibatollah Akhondzada, "Amirollmo'menin". Haibatollah does not claim this title for nothing… "Amirollmo'menin" means leader of ALL Muslims in the world, and the Pakistani Taleban rely on him. He considers the state and social system in Pakistan to be non-Islamic and inherited from the British colonial power, therefore it must be eliminated and replaced by an Islamic system, like the one in Afghanistan.
If the Taleban give in to the Pakistanis' demands, they will be betraying their allies, tribes and fellow brethren, they will lose their own credibility, and they will lose the support of the Pashtuns on both sides of the border. This would also be a severe blow to the Pashtun "nationalist" forces who see the time for their Greater Pashtunistan as having finally come. The role and intentions of the group around Molla Baradar, Molla Yaqoob and Serajoddin Haqqani – who are said to be somewhat more pragmatic and moderate – and also the role of the neighbouring states and Russia and USA/UK remain unclear. Any assumptions by outsiders belong to the realm of speculation. One can imagine, however, that India and Iran might have a (contingent) interest in weakening Pakistan and even eliminating its previous role as a "gendarme" of the West and a terrorism-producing powerhouse.
Today, Pakistan is grappling with enormous home-grown political, economic, financial and social problems that threaten its existence like never before. The TTP is just one of them.
The other serious threat Pakistan is facing is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), which has been active since 2000. The anti-Islamabad Baloch people have always found good support from previous Afghan governments and from India. Although the BLA's claims and aims are not religious and they fight for their own "national" interests against Islamabad, they also have good links with the Afghan Taleban and the TTP. The Balochistan conflict with Pakistan's central government dates back to 1947, the year Pakistan was founded. Since 2004, the BLA has strengthened its struggle, and the Pakistan Army has been engaged in a merciless war with the BLA. In the event of a conflict between Pakistan and the Taleban and TTP, the Pakistan Army would have to fight on two fronts.
Nevertheless, Pakistan has one of the strongest armies in the world. But the crucial question now is whether it would be able to wage a war against the Taleban, a war which would have no clear objectives and contours and would only lead to the total destabilisation of Pakistan, and whose costs would be simply incalculable. The Taleban seem to be interpreting Pakistan's circumstances and prospects in their favour. It is very unlikely that they will comply with Islamabad's demands and abandon their support of the TTP.
Pakistani leaders can threaten the Taleban with whatever they wish, but any military intervention in Afghanistan will have fatal consequences that would lead to the total collapse, division and even dismemberment of Pakistan.
On March 2, barely a week following the talks and threats in Kabul, a terror attack involving explosives took place in the eastern Afghan city of Khost, killing six TTP senior commanders. This was followed by an anti-Taleban propaganda campaign instigated by the ISI. Pakistani media reports sought to create the impression that the Afghan Taleban were the perpetrators of the attack by explicitly referring to the intra-Taleban strife amongst various Taleban groups, but to this day it remains unclear who planted the explosives amidst the gas tanks of a restaurant opposite the hotel where the TTP men were staying. The Taleban blithely dismissed the cause of the explosion as yet another "accident involving gas tanks". Such "accidents" have been, strangely enough, occurring at a greater frequency in Afghan cities – ever since the Taleban takeover.