Intra-Afghan Talks and Future of Pakistan-Taliban Relations

 In Afghanistan, N11

The reshuf­fling of the Taliban lead­er­ship ahead of the intra-Afghan nego­ti­a­tions, which began this month in Doha, has under­scored that the mil­i­tant group is trying to emerge from Pakistan’s shadow and to bol­ster its polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy, par­tic­u­lar­ly since the sign­ing of the US-Taliban deal in February. Its pri­ma­ry aim appears to be to remove the label of being Pakistan’s proxy – an image that not only has neg­a­tive impli­ca­tions for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but has also invit­ed reproach from its arch-foe, the Islamic State.

The Taliban have long accom­mo­dat­ed Pakistani demands to pre­serve the sup­port struc­ture, notwith­stand­ing the group’s per­pet­u­al desire for strate­gic auton­o­my. Tellingly, the pro­posed venues for future intra-Afghan nego­ti­a­tions include Oslo, Tashkent and Doha, but not Islamabad. Like other region­al coun­tries, Pakistan’s role in the nego­ti­a­tions has been reduced to that of a facil­i­ta­tor.

Pakistan would prefer the mil­i­tant group’s main­stream­ing and incor­po­ra­tion into the cur­rent Afghan power equa­tion, rather than the restora­tion of a Taliban gov­ern­ment. During the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, sev­er­al noto­ri­ous Pakistani ter­ror­ists took refuge in Afghanistan, and despite repeat­ed Pakistani requests, the Taliban refused to hand them over. The Taliban’s full-scale return to power in Afghanistan would create a tri­umphant jihadist nar­ra­tive for a pletho­ra of mil­i­tant groups in Pakistan, cou­pled with trig­ger­ing a renewed wave of rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion in Deobandi madras­sa net­works sym­pa­thet­ic to the Taliban.

This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Pakistan to re-cal­i­brate its narrow and secu­ri­ty-cen­tric Afghan policy into a more broad-based and com­pre­hen­sive approach.

The appoint­ment of Mullah Yaqoob, the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as the head of the Taliban’s mil­i­tary com­mis­sion, super­sed­ing sev­er­al senior Taliban com­man­ders, is also aimed at min­imis­ing depen­dence on Pakistan. Yaqoob belongs to a younger gen­er­a­tion of the Taliban who carry no bag­gage of Pakistani patron­age. The pro­mo­tion of hard­lin­er Mullah Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, the Taliban’s de facto chief jus­tice, as the head of the Taliban’s nego­ti­a­tion team, should be seen in the same vein. Hakim has replaced the pro-Pakistan Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai. His appoint­ment not only address­es the reser­va­tions of hard-line Taliban fac­tions, but also strength­ens the impres­sion that there will be no com­pro­mise on Islamic rule in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Taliban’s deci­sion to dis­perse mem­bers of its Quetta-based Rahbari Shura (lead­er­ship coun­cil) in Afghanistan, Qatar and Pakistan, is part of a broad­er effort to reduce depen­dence on Pakistan.

A patron-proxy rela­tion­ship is altered when the proxy grows in polit­i­cal influ­ence and attains finan­cial auton­o­my. The Pakistan-Taliban patron-proxy rela­tion­ship began to trans­form with the Taliban’s mil­i­tary vic­to­ries, which increased their ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­trol, polit­i­cal influ­ence and finan­cial auton­o­my. Pakistan’s main lever­age over the Taliban was to pro­vide a sanc­tu­ary, which weak­ened with the group’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al gains in Afghanistan. More ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­trol allowed the Taliban more hide­outs in Afghanistan and less depen­dence on Pakistan. Furthermore, the open­ing of the Taliban’s Qatar office enabled the group to diver­si­fy its ties with other region­al coun­tries such as China, Russia and Iran. These coun­tries opened up to the Taliban fol­low­ing the emer­gence of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in 2015. They saw ISKP’s rise in Afghanistan as a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty and extend­ed the Taliban mate­r­i­al sup­port to stifle the group’s growth.

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, once a key Mujahideen base against the Soviets, now a productive agricultural region (Homayon Khoram/United Nations Photo/Flickr)

In the past, Pakistan’s mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment has pres­surised the Taliban through arbitrary detentions and intimidation to toe their line.

For instance, in 2010, Mullah Ghani Baradar, then – deputy chief of Mullah Omar, was round­ed up in a joint raid by Paksitan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency for uni­lat­er­al­ly reach­ing out to then – Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks. Thereafter, the Taliban opened a polit­i­cal office in Qatar to break free from Pakistani influ­ence. Likewise, in 2014 Pakistan briefly arrest­ed two broth­ers of the head of Taliban’s Qatar office, Tayyeb Agha, for bypass­ing his inter­locu­tors and direct­ly reach­ing out to the US.

In 2015, the Taliban lead­er­ship bris­tled when Pakistan forced the group lead­er­ship to hold talks with mem­bers of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC). The Rahbari Shura allowed some lead­ers close to the Pakistani mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment to meet an HPC del­e­ga­tion, to avoid burn­ing bridges with Pakistan, but the group start­ed look­ing for alter­na­tive sanc­tu­ar­ies. Former Taliban chief Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, prior to his killing in a US drone attack in 2016, was in Iran as part of his move to look for new hide­outs. Subsequently, the Taliban opened a Shura in the Iranian city of Mashhad, where some Taliban lead­ers main­tain res­i­dence. More recent­ly, a dis­si­dent Taliban fac­tion, Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami, has also been oper­at­ing out of Iran.

This year in May, the Taliban refut­ed a rumour it would participate in the Kashmir insurgency fol­low­ing the com­plete with­draw­al of the US from Afghanistan, high­light­ing that the group does not wish to be drawn into the India-Pakistan dis­pute. The spokesman of the Taliban’s Qatar office, Suhail Shaheen, reit­er­at­ed the Taliban policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other coun­tries.

Recently, Pakistan’s deci­sion to impose sanctions on the Taliban and the Haqqani Network is an effort to bol­ster its image and alle­vi­ate some pres­sure from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty over its ties with the Taliban. Notwithstanding the out­come of the intra-Afghan peace talks, Pakistan’s influ­ence over the Taliban will con­tin­ue to decline. After the nego­ti­a­tions, the US expects a Pakistan-Afghanistan agreement ensur­ing that their respec­tive ter­ri­to­ries will not be used against each other in future. Such an agree­ment would entail curb­ing the Taliban’s cross-border move­ment into Afghanistan from Pakistan. This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Pakistan to re-cal­i­brate its narrow and secu­ri­ty-cen­tric Afghan policy into a more broad-based and com­pre­hen­sive approach.

Lowy Institute source|articles

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search