In the past four decades, Pakistan has been relegated from the USA’s sweetheart in the 1980s to a bitter old flame that now wants to give the USA and its Western allies a cold shoulder by “absolutely not” providing them military bases for future operations in Afghanistan. With the USA’s exit from Afghanistan, Western news agencies and media have repeatedly published reports and analyses on Pakistan’s involvement and support for the Afghan Taliban. Official statements from Pakistan seem to hint that Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban has been limited to the 1990s, after which Pakistan apparently did back off due to the international opinion that was then changing with regard to religious elements who were once the celebrated mujahideen. This change in attitude might have had much to do also with the emergence of religious and sectarian militant factions within Pakistan. Yet it seems there are not enough takers for this narrative in Washington D.C.
With so much in the way of disagreements between the West and Pakistan, and with the new brave face that the latter is putting up, facts regarding Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban post-2001 have become tainted by propaganda, bias and censorship of previous accounts. It has become almost impossible to figure out whether Pakistan was involved with the Taliban or not – an if yes, then how much and to what end. And if it was not quite as on board, then on what grounds are the Western media and several international non-governmental organizations revealing supposed “facts” of Pakistan’s involvement and why are they insisting upon dragging Pakistan through the mud – especially in a conflict which the Pakistani government claims was no longer favorable to the country?
Without commenting upon Pakistan’s actual level of strategic ties with the Afghan Taliban, it should be possible for us to recognize the socio-political linkages hint and some degree of natural affinity between the two parties, historically speaking. The existence of this natural affinity can be understood from three perspectives – the social, the security-based and the strategic.
The narrative of the Afghan Taliban still resonates strongly here, especially when they frame their struggle as being against a “liberal” government and urban society – a conflict that seems all too familiar to conservative Pakistanis
The Afghan Taliban’s ties with Pakistan’s social fabric have primarily been organic ones, rooted in the massive influence of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam throughout the South Asian region. In Pakistan, it is only this group that has ever been able to able to properly establish a religious and political scholarly class, despite not being a demographic majority. Moreover, this school has been able to manifest its ideology in political parties such as Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which have historically been openly clear on the cohesion of their views with the Afghan Taliban. Western media outlets have also shown reports of Deobandi parties in Pakistan providing support and sponsorship to the Afghan Taliban.
Further, due to the great influence of Deobandi ideology in Pakistan’s public discourse, most Pakistanis find themselves sympathetic to a Taliban government in Afghanistan. This also becomes advantageous at the state level since public diplomacy across the border becomes a very strategically feasible option because of the semblance of ideological uniformity between the Afghan Taliban and religious segments of Pakistani society. It is certainly a fact that a majority of Pakistanis are not theologically Deobandi, and also that most Pakistanis may disagree with the particular and extremist interpretation of Deobandi Islam preached by the Taliban. However, the narrative of the Afghan Taliban still resonates strongly here, especially when they frame their struggle as being against a “liberal” government and urban society – a conflict that seems all too familiar to conservative Pakistanis. Due to this resonance, any disomfort with the Taliban and their extremist interpretations can be swept under the rug for many in Pakistan.
With all of this being said, analysts around the world would be better served if they admitted that Pakistan’s alleged undeclared alliance with the Taliban all the way to 2021 remains a grey area
Pakistan’s official stance of support for the Taliban government stems from the security threat that the unrest in Afghanistan poses for it. Repeatedly, Pakistani statesmen have reiterated the losses Pakistan has faced due to the Afghan war and the subsequent instability in the country which has seeped into Pakistan. Leaders, including the current Prime Minister, have emphasized the burden on Pakistan in the form of three million refugees and massive amounts of money spent on defense along the Afghan border. In this regard, Pakistan’s official statements have been crying out for a “diplomatic solution in Afghanistan” – in the words of Prime Minister Khan – which the Pakistani government has apparently found in the Doha Accords, manifest in the revival of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In spite of the Pakistani government remaining clear on its goal of wishing peace in Afghanistan, whether under a democratic government or under the Taliban, Western opinion-makers insist that it had strategically been providing underhanded support, funds, weapons and intelligence to the Taliban against the Western-backed governments. In this view, Pakistan wants a sympathetic – and perhaps even puppet government in Afghanistan – in the form of the Taliban to relieve itself from the threat of not only falling out with some other kind of Afghan government but also minimizing the risk of Indian influence on its backdoor.
If such an alleged gameplay between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan is true, then perhaps Pakistan’s security strategy did actually end up achieving what it wanted and has emerged as a victor from the Afghan war – at least until time proves otherwise.
With all of this being said, analysts around the world would be better served if they admitted that Pakistan’s alleged undeclared alliance with the Taliban all the way to 2021 remains a grey area. While Pakistani involvement with the Taliban does make some strategic sense; nevertheless, this cannot be the totality of the situation. Pakistan’s official diplomatic stance cannot be so easily dismissed as if it were entirely devoid of truth value. Islamabad has repeatedly expressed its agenda of wanting peace on its northwestern border so that economic connectivity could finally be established with the Central Asian regions, inclusive of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the West continues to blame Pakistan for bringing the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan.
International opinion would do well to ask what the post-2001 ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan was all about, and who its principal protagonist was: Pakistan or the United States. Answers are long overdue, and we will only have a proper picture once those who worked behind the scenes begin speaking more openly.