Taliban victory unleashes hardline forces in Pakistan

Groups of Taliban fighters, dressed in the group’s usual assortment of military fatigues and shawls, have massed on Afghanistan’s long and arid southern border with Pakistan.

The Durand Line, a 19th century boundary demarcated by British imperialists, is fiercely rejected by many on both sides of the border for carving up the traditional lands of the Pashtun people, tens of millions of whom live on either side.

In a series of choreographed, well-publicised incidents, Taliban fighters dismantled poles and barbed wire erected by Pakistan, accompanied by denunciations from their leaders. In one video, local fighters appeared to topple a pillar emblazoned with the Pakistani flag and rolled it down a sandy hill.

Pakistan has long been one of the Taliban’s most important advocates, from openly supporting its regime before 2001 to allegedly providing a haven to the group during the US war. Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed the Islamists’ military conquest in August and has lobbied for more international assistance for its government.

Yet the Taliban’s victory has unleashed a wave of hardline forces that Khan’s government is struggling to control, on and within Pakistan’s borders. Apart from the border tensions, these range from surging violence by emboldened domestic extremists to a growing political challenge from Pakistani Islamist parties who identify with the Taliban’s views.

“While some argued that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan would be a victory for Pakistan, it was not going to be an uncomplicated victory. We’re seeing that playing out,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Taliban fighters next to people waiting to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan’s border town Spin Boldak in September 2021
Taliban fighters and civilians wait to cross Afghanistan’s border into Pakistan. People living on either side of the Durand Line have routinely travelled back and forth for decades without border controls © AFP via Getty Images

Afzal said this was inevitable after the US peace agreement with the Taliban, which paved the way for the militants’ victory and bolstered their legitimacy within Pakistan. “It was obvious when the Doha deal was signed, nearly two years ago now, that this would embolden all stripes of Islamists/extremists in Pakistan,” she said.

The Islamist threat is growing at the same time as Khan’s government is trying to steer Pakistan through an economic crisis and implement a series of unpopular IMF-mandated austerity measures, all while shoring up his position in preparation for elections next year.

He will also need to manage fraught relations with the Taliban. The Durand Line has been a longstanding source of friction on both sides of the border.

For decades, people living on either side routinely travelled back and forth using rugged routes without border controls. For many Afghans, including the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, Pakistan’s efforts to formalise the border were a source of outrage.

The border has emerged as the biggest rift in relations between Pakistan and the Taliban. It also risks inflaming Pakistan-based Islamist and Pashtun groups.

Most concerning has been a rise in attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP. The group, ideologically aligned with but separate from the Afghan Taliban, is a fierce enemy of Islamabad and was responsible for horrific terrorist attacks that have killed thousands over the past decade.

Rising TTP activity since August, and fears that fighters would use Afghanistan to launch cross-border attacks, prompted Pakistan to negotiate a one-month ceasefire with the group in November.

But the TTP withdrew from the agreement last month, arguing that Pakistan had not honoured conditions such as releasing dozens of prisoners.

Several Pakistani soldiers have since been killed in clashes with the group. A senior TTP leader was killed last week in a neighbouring Afghan province.

“Many TTP militants are now in Afghanistan, from where they have repeatedly tried to attack Pakistan,” said a Pakistan government official based near the border.

Other hardline Pakistani Islamists, who are able to mobilise mass street protests and hold extensive influence in the country’s networks of madrassas, have made their presence felt in other ways.

Khan’s government in November was forced to lift a ban on a contentious group, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, after it threatened to launch a march on Islamabad.

The group, which campaigns to enforce strict punishment including death for blasphemers, had previously paralysed central Pakistan after protests against caricatures of the prophet Muhammad appeared in Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine.

Last month another Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, won more than half of the available seats in local elections in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including the mayoral race of the provincial capital Peshawar. The province is home to much of Pakistan’s Pashtun population. JUI leader Fazal-ur-Rehman is a vocal member of an anti-Khan opposition coalition.

The prime minister attributed the upset to bad candidate selection by his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. But some officials and analysts said that the victory pointed towards a more sustained electoral challenge.

“There is nervousness over the Taliban consolidating their position in Afghanistan and influencing their surrounding region,” said one senior businessman. “Even if it’s just the latest local elections, the outcome will confirm the worst fears.”

Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, said that history was repeating itself. “Every time . . . the Taliban have been in power, there has definitely been a spillover of Taliban beliefs and ideas into Pakistan,” he said.

“Pakistan thought helping the Taliban win power in Afghanistan will be the end of Pakistan’s Pashtun and Afghan problems. I think it’s just the beginning.”

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