Pakistan has been simultaneously grappling with a complex political transition and a domestic Taliban insurgency for many years. Now, Islamabad is under pressure to weaken its Taliban insurgency before NATO withdraws from Afghanistan since U.S.-Afghan Taliban talks are not going well and the Afghan Taliban could emerge in a position of power in 2014. A dominant Taliban in Afghanistan would represent a nightmare scenario for Islamabad because it could embolden the Pakistani Taliban and thwart Pakistan’s desires to take control of its northern territories.
In the latest violence in Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border, up to 25 Pakistani soldiers and some 125 militants have been killed in a new counterjihadist offensive. Pakistani ground and air forces for the past week have sought to dislodge Taliban fighters from key heights in the Tirah Valley in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, one of the seven districts that make up the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This represents the biggest offensive in the region over the past two years against fighters from Pakistan’s main Taliban rebel grouping, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and their allies from Laskhar-e-Islam, a local Taliban grouping.
Taliban Activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Islamabad launched a major counterjihadist offensive nearly four years ago to try to regain control of its northwest, a region that since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan increasingly has fallen under the control of Pakistani Taliban rebels aligned with al Qaeda. The Pakistani armed forces have struggled to hold these areas long enough to build up civilian governance and pursue development projects to integrate its northwestern Pashtun periphery into the core. Civilian governance, however, has a long way to go before it can establish itself in the core of the country, and thus it is unlikely that peripheral areas affected by the Taliban insurgency will fall under Islamabad’s writ anytime soon.
Pakistani Interests in Afghanistan
Pakistan has hoped a negotiated settlement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban ending the insurgency in Afghanistan would eventually help Islamabad deal with militants on Pakistani side of the border. But with just a little more than a year until the NATO drawdown concludes, talks between Washington and the Afghan jihadist movement have produced little in the way of results.
Exacerbating the uncertainty in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai — who has been at the center of the post-Taliban Afghan state since its inception 11 years ago — will be leaving office due to term limits. From Islamabad’s perspective, a post-NATO Afghanistan that fails to include the Taliban in a political understanding would be disastrous.
An Afghan Taliban insurgency unencumbered by Western forces poses a direct national security threat to Pakistan because it offers the Pakistani Taliban havens in Afghanistan and could even reverse the dwindling fortunes of al Qaeda prime, which is headquartered in Pakistan. Already, Pakistani Taliban rebels displaced from the greater Swat region have found sanctuary in northeastern Afghan provinces such as Kunar, from where they periodically mount attacks in Pakistan. For this reason, the outgoing Pakistani government has spent the last few years trying to improve its relations with the Karzai administration. It also has reached out to anti-Taliban factions among Afghan ethnic minorities not represented in the central government. Both steps are meant to build additional checks on the Taliban.
The latest example of this outreach was the April 10 inauguration of the $18 million Liaquat Ali Khan Engineering University, built by Pakistan in Afghanistan’s Balkh province. The province is a major stronghold of Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic community, the Tajiks, who have long been at odds with Islamabad given the latter’s historical support for their enemies, the Taliban.
Though Pakistan has an incentive to continue building such ties, there has been a reversal in the move toward improved Kabul-Islamabad relations in recent weeks as both sides have accused the other of undermining the peace efforts. To a great extent, this souring of ties is due to the uncertainty in Kabul regarding who will assume power after Karzai in next year’s presidential election. Progress in NATO-Afghan Taliban talks remains elusive, and the Afghan state could destabilize even before NATO forces depart.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is going through a historic transition of its own. Its first democratically elected government recently completed its five-year term and the country’s first democratic transfer of power is expected to take place after May 11 elections. While Pakistan is slowly moving toward consolidating its democracy, the coming elections are expected to produce an even more fragmented parliament than before. Right-wing nationalist political forces, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s Pakistani Tehrik-i-Insaf, could make major gains at the expense of the center-left Pakistan People’s Party, which led the coalition government until last month.
An even more divided parliament will complicate matters regarding the cross-border Taliban insurgencies on Pakistan’s western flank. A fragmented legislature will complicate policymaking, and a right-wing government would create room for the Pakistani Taliban to exploit. These right-wing parties rely heavily on Islamists and the broader group of conservative voters — many of whom do not favor what is perceived as a U.S. war that has undermined Pakistani security. The Pakistani political right has argued that if a superpower like the United States is being forced to talk to the Afghan Taliban, then Pakistan should be able to negotiate with its own citizens who have shifted toward supporting the Taliban in order to bring them back into the mainstream.
While this might seem logical, the bulk of the Pakistani Taliban subscribe to al Qaeda’s transnational jihadism — unlike the Afghan Taliban, who are nationalist jihadists and thus have self-imposed limits on their political goals for the state. Accordingly, the Pakistani Taliban wish to see Pakistan serve as a launchpad for the creation of an international caliphate. However, it could still be possible to negotiate with some elements within the Pakistani Taliban landscape and bring them into the political mainstream.
Many among Pakistan’s strategic planners had hoped a settlement in Afghanistan would help Islamabad tackle its own Taliban problem. The thinking is that a withdrawal of U.S. forces and a power-sharing deal that empowers the Afghan Taliban would eliminate much of the basis for the militancy in Pakistan. The entry of the Afghan Taliban into the political mainstream would then create fissures within the Pakistani Taliban landscape, making the group much more militarily and politically manageable.
But there are two major factors that will likely prevent this outcome. First, the talks with the Afghan Taliban have stalled. Second, many among the Pakistani Taliban are fighting not because of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but to topple the Pakistani state because they deem it “un-Islamic.” This makes them unlikely to end their insurgency in the event of a breakthrough in Afghanistan.
An intensified civil war in post-NATO Afghanistan would only make matters worse for Pakistan because it would provide strategic depth for the Pakistani Taliban to operate more freely. A politically dominant Taliban in post-NATO Afghanistan would also embolden the Pakistani Taliban to act against Islamabad.
If the Afghan Taliban are not part of a broad-based coalition government in Kabul, Pakistan will face serious difficulties in getting a handle on its own Taliban rebels. This explains why Pakistan has been pushing for a balance of power between the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces. Islamabad cannot hope to integrate its own Taliban and tribal areas into the federation if the main Taliban movement in Afghanistan is not brought into a post-NATO coalition government. Pakistan’s own political transition is thus in many ways linked to political stability in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Pakistan will need to exert its energies to encourage the Afghan Taliban to reach a settlement with their opponents in the Afghan state and society. It must also continue to reach out to reconcilable elements among its own Taliban rebels through the help of neutral warlords. The key question is to what degree Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces will be willing to accept the current constitutional setups in both countries.