Taliban militants began flexing their muscles across the length and breadth of the country as the US-NATO forces left the Bagram base on July 2, 2021.
According to a report titled “Taliban advances as U.S. completes withdrawal”, published by the Long War Journal, Taliban now holds 212 of 407 districts in Afghanistan, up from 73 at the beginning of May, while the Afghan government only controls 76 currently. The rest 119 are still contested.
These figures keep fluctuating on a day to day basis reflecting an ongoing struggle for survival.
The main motive of the Taliban in governing Afghanistan is the reinstatement of an ultra-conservative Islamist regime which would ensure the continuation of their rule in the future. As reported on June 11, 2021, while discussing the process of ‘takeover’, Mullah Majid, a Taliban ‘commander’ claimed, “We take a village; we sleep in the mosque. We don’t bother people in their homes. But, the first thing we do is close down the Government run schools. We destroy them and sack all the teachers and staff. Instead, we put in place our own religious schools, which follow our own curriculum in order to train the future Taliban.”
Currently, the violence in the country is on a steep rise as Taliban seize one district after another. Since April 14, 2021, when the US President, Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US-NATO troops from Afghan soil heralding a possible end to the nearly two-decade US military presence in that country, a significant number of casualties occurred in the war torn nation.
There have been sporadic incidents emerging out of the restrictions imposed by the Taliban; women protesting on the streets; Afghan citizens trying to leave the country in bulk; etc. these are happening all over the country indicating a dangerous future filled with fear and despair. In one such latest incident, as reported on July 9, 2021, residents of Balkh District confirmed that the Taliban distributed leaflets, ordering locals to follow stringent rules similar to what had been imposed on Afghans when they had governed the country between 1996 to 2001. The Taliban posters are supposedly visible all across the district. One such poster issued by the ‘Commission of Promotion & Guidance and Enjoining good & forbidding wrong’ thus states: “Dear sisters please wear a hijab and don’t go and travel in the city without ‘Mehram’ (Male Guardian)”. Simultaneously, women in northern and central parts of Afghanistan have come out on the street in first week of July, in a show of rebellion against the Taliban. One of the biggest demonstrations was held in Ghor province. But such acts demonstrate the deep-seated fear among the women and horrors of the previous Taliban regime. Also, as reported on July 3, people are flocking the passport office in Kabul, the capital city to plan their exit. There have also been long lines of people queuing in front of various embassies. Many want to leave the country due to political uncertainty and before it gets too worse because of the Taliban.
The 20 long years, of ‘War on Terror’ by the US and its allies have given a new leaf of life to the Taliban. At the same time, it has given Pakistan a new opportunity to continue with duplicity: ‘assist’ in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan and also create its own domain within Afghanistan where the Taliban functions as a major ally. Predictably, on July 9, 2021, Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi ‘officially’ cautioned against the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and urged all parties to agree on a power sharing formula to avert a looming civil war in the neighbouring country. While playing the victim card, Qureshi further said, Pakistan would not be able to tackle the influx of more refugees in case the armed conflict intensified.
Even the United States seems to have noticed this dubious role of Pakistan in the entire Afghanistan situation. Recently, the US Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Thomas West is known to have observed that Pakistan is more interested in building a narrative to avoid blame rather than pro-actively providing help on the ground and refuted its claims regarding limited leverage over Taliban. West, went on to add that Pakistan refrains from exercising its leverage which includes closing the border for Taliban waging war in Afghanistan, detaining some of the Taliban leadership or their families or denying medical treatment to those injured in fighting.
As such, Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban date back to the 1990s, when it provided arms, training, and intelligence to the militants. Islamabad was one of the only three countries to recognize the Taliban regime officially as that belonging to the Government of Afghanistan. After the regime’s fall in 2001, many Taliban leaders took refuge inside Pakistan. Observers are of the opinion that Pakistan sees the Taliban as an insurance policy for attainment of its long-standing strategic goals in Afghanistan i.e. installation of a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul and restraining the influence of India, which has close ties with Kabul.
Pakistani militants operating along Taliban in Afghanistan
Pakistan is no doubt a seasoned player at duplicity with the State officially trying to disown its Taliban linkages but the administration tacitly leading hundreds of terrorists into Afghanistan. It is estimated that about 7,200 Pakistani terrorists are fighting along the Taliban in Afghanistan. Militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are active in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces in Eastern Afghanistan and Helmand and Kandahar provinces particularly in the southeast of the country. Unsurprisingly, all these four Afghan provinces share borders with Pakistan. Moreover, terrorist fighters from other Pakistan-based groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jamaat-ul-Arhar (JuA), Lashkar-e-Islam and Al Badr have also been spotted fighting alongside the Taliban in sizeable numbers. Moreover, Pakistani terrorists have also been found in Ghazni, Khost, Logar, Paktia and Paktika provinces in south and southeast Afghanistan.
It is true that many clerics and Islamist groups are sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban and support them covertly. They are accused of intensifying efforts and encouraging the militant groups. The Afghan Taliban is banned in Pakistan, but some clerics as well as Islamist groups are sympathetic to these militant groups and engage in recruitment activities on their behalf. This is not the first time that clerics and religious leaders within Pakistan have supported the cause of the Taliban across the other side of border. Interestingly, the entire cadre base of Taliban during the 1990s was supported by Darul Uloom Haqqania Madrasa (seminary), situated at Akora Khattak in the Pakistani province of Akora Khattak. The Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary has repeatedly churned out the ‘who’s who’ of Taliban top brass including many now on the hardliner group’s negotiating team who hold talks with the Kabul government to end the 20-year war. The seminary’s late leader Sami-ul-Haq boasted of advising the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar, earning him the nickname of “the Father of the Taliban”. Haq later sent students to fight for the movement when it issued a call to arms during its rise to power in the 1990s. The Haqqani network, the Taliban’s ultra-violent faction, is named after this seminary where its leader was taught, raised and subsequently followed by numerous other members.
The Taliban thus enjoys the support of Pakistan’s mainstream Islamic parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and Jamaat-i-Islami. Shuja ul Mulk, a leader of JUI, who also served in the National Assembly of Pakistan, thus stated, “…who have made many sacrifices, and with whom we share a common ideology.” JUI Nazriati, which splintered off from JUI after 9/11, remains among the Taliban’s most loyal supporters. The group’s leader, Maulana Abdul Qadir Luni, too openly supports Afghan jihad in speeches, rallies and videos.
Taliban is also involved in channelizing monetary support within Pakistan. There has been a spurt in fund-raising and recruitment by the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil, especially in Balochistan. Several top Taliban leaders are believed to be based in Balochistan and form a part of the Quetta Shura. Also, Afghan Taliban militants stay with coal miners in the province, and come to the local markets every Friday to solicit PKR 5,000 to PKR 10,000 from shopkeepers. Meanwhile, an unnamed member of the Balochistan Assembly said members of the Taliban “openly hold fundraising campaigns” in several areas of the province such as Kuchlak, Quetta, Pashtun Abad, Ishaq Abad and Farooqia town.
Pakistan has always fought against ‘Bad Taliban’, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that challenged Pakistan government’s writ in certain geographic locations, including Swat and Waziristan in the past. The ‘Good Taliban’ on the other hand, is supposed to be those terror groups largely active in Afghanistan and other fronts, including Kashmir that posed little harm to Pakistan. Due to this discriminatory tactic, it also alleged that Pakistan “harboured” such groups for some gains and, ultimately used them to put pressure on the international communities, especially the US.
Besides, with the increasing prominence of Taliban in the region and the inability of the international players to come to a solution without its participation, an apt platform seems to have been generated for Pakistan to continue with its game of ‘good Taliban’ versus ‘bad Taliban’. The State is making frequent requests to the good Taliban (Afghan Taliban) to deal with the bad ones (TTP). On the public front, the Pakistani state is even trying to barter with the Afghan Taliban. On June 26, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad said that Pakistan has made a big decision to not give bases to the US, and now, Islamabad expects the Afghan Taliban to restrain the TTP and the others. He thus stated: “PM Imran Khan has categorically said that we [Pakistan] will not give any bases to the United States to use against Afghanistan…But we also expect from [Afghan] Taliban that they will not allow TTP [Tehreek-e-Pakistan Taliban] and other elements to carry out any activity which causes harm to the lives and property of Pakistani people…”
As the situation deteriorates towards a probable full-scale Taliban occupation of the country, the future of Afghanistan and the surrounding region seems grim and uncertain. With Pakistani proxies fighting along the Taliban, any Pakistani support would be detrimental to the existing Afghan government and its armed forces given its record and practice of duplicity vis-à-vis Afghanistan. At the same time, with the tacit backing of the Pak authorities it seems like in these moments of crises, disappointingly it is the radical elements across both sides of the Durand Line that are on the path to a greater sense of legitimacy and control over the political situation, rather than responsible democratic entities.