As the Taliban regains influence in Afghanistan it will look to shake its tag as a proxy force.
As the intra-Afghan talks advance, among other likely changes, Pakistan-Taliban relations would also evolve. Ahead of the intra-Afghan negotiations, the reshuffles within the Taliban hierarchy indicate that the insurgent group is trying to emerge from under Pakistan’s shadow. The Taliban leadership is doing this to bolster its political legitimacy, particularly since the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February, and to remove the 'Pakistani proxy' tag.
Pakistan is deeply unpopular in Afghanistan and continued association with it would damage the Taliban’s political credibility. The Taliban, despite their desire for strategic autonomy, still remain responsive to Pakistani demands to keep their support structure.
Interestingly, the proposed locations for the upcoming rounds of the intra-Afghan talks include Oslo, Tashkent and Doha, but not Islamabad. Unlike Pakistan’s central role in the US-Taliban deal, Islamabad’s role in the intra-Afghan negotiations would be reduced, just like other regional countries, to that of a facilitator.
Pakistan opposes the revival of the pre-9/11 status quo in Afghanistan and wishes the Taliban’s incorporation in the current power structure. Pakistan is equally nervous about a hasty US exit from Afghanistan and laments the absence of a potential peace guarantor in the ongoing talks.
The Taliban’s full-scale return to power in Afghanistan would not only be a great morale booster for a plethora of 'jihadist' groups in Pakistan, but it could trigger a fresh wave of radicalisation in Deobandi madrassa networks sympathetic to the Taliban.
In recent months, several steps taken by the Taliban leadership validate that the group is trying to minimise its dependence on Pakistan. A case in point is the rise of Mullah Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s son, as the head of the Taliban’s military commission, superseding several senior Taliban commanders.
Yaqoob represents the younger generation of the Taliban, who has neither lived in Pakistan nor carries the baggage of Pakistani patronage. The appointment of hardliner Mullah Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, the Taliban’s de-facto chief justice, as the head of the intra-Afghan negotiation team, should be seen in the same vein.
Hakim has replaced Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, who is considered closer to Pakistan. Hakim’s appointment not only assuages the reservations of the Taliban hardliners but strengthens the impression that the group would not compromise on its demand for Shariah rule.
Similarly, the Taliban’s decision to spread members of the Rahbari Shura (executive council) in Afghanistan, Qatar and Pakistan, is indicative of the group’s effort to break free from Islamabad’s patronage.
Pakistan-Taliban ties have always remained fluid due to the latter’s aspiration for strategic autonomy and the former’s efforts to control the group coercively.
Pakistan’s influence oscillated between compliance and obstinacy. It peaked during the period when the Taliban were weak and declined when the Taliban made gains. This relationship was not based on loyalty or brotherhood, rather on converging interests and a lack of viable alternatives.
The Pakistan-Taliban patron-proxy relationship started transforming with the Taliban’s military victories, which increased their territorial control, political influence and financial autonomy within Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s main leverage over the Taliban was the provision of sanctuaries, 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 Daesh (the Islamic State of Khorasan Province or ISKP) in 2015. They saw Daesh's rise in Afghanistan as a threat to their national securities and extended material support to checkmate the former’s growth.
In the past, Pakistan’s security agencies have used a combination of intimidations and arrests to regulate the Taliban’s defiant behaviour. For instance, in 2010, Mullah Ghani Baradar, then deputy chief of Mullah Omar, was arrested for unilaterally approaching then Afghan President Hamid Karzai through a Norwegian UN diplomat Kai Eide for talks.
Subsequently, the Taliban created their political office in Qatar to establish diplomatic relations free of Pakistani interference. Similarly, in 2014 Pakistan temporarily detained two brothers of then head of Taliban’s Qatar office Tayyeb Agha, for bypassing his interlocutors and directly reaching out to the US.
In 2015, when Pakistan threatened to expel the Taliban if they did not open negations with Kabul, the group was ready to move out of Pakistan instead of bowing to any dictates detrimental to its interest.
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 lessen Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan.
This year in May, the Taliban’s unequivocal denial of rumoured participation in the Kashmir insurgency following the complete exit of the US from Afghanistan underlines that in the future, the group does not want to be dragged into India-Pakistan regional proxy wars. Denying the social media rumours, the then spokesperson of Taliban’s Qatar office Suhail Shaheen reiterated the Taliban’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Furthermore, despite Pakistan’s reservations and complaints, the Afghan Taliban have never taken action against or dispelled Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from its Afghan hideouts. TTP continues to launch attacks inside Pakistan from these hideouts. Quite to the contrary, when Daesh branched out of TTP and challenged the Taliban’s ideological supremacy, it was dealt with swiftly. The Taliban have used TTP as a bargaining chip in its dealings with Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the intra-Afghan peace talks, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban will continue to decline. Keeping this in view, Pakistan should also enhance its relations with other Afghan ethnic and political groups by reorienting its narrow and security-centric Afghan policy to a more holistic and comprehensive policy.
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