Kabul is hesitant to antagonise the “Pakistani Taliban” lest it supports the self-styled caliphate, yet the same group poses a threat to Islamabad.

The Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan in summer 2021 was widely saluted in Pakistan, where both latent and overt sympathy for the group has existed for a quarter-century. It brought the rare prospect of friendly governments in the two neighbours, a friendliness that seems the more necessary because of their slew of shared economic and political concerns.

But this bonhomie is complicated by events in the borderlands, a region that has historically tended to elude the control of successive Afghan and Pakistani governments. This region featured first a long-running Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or “Pakistani Taliban” insurgency against Pakistan, much of which then dissipated into Daesh’s regional “Khorasani” wing and turned on the Afghan Taliban movement.

Though both Pakistan, in 2014, and the Taliban, in 2020, claimed victory over these challengers, both insurgencies continue to pose an oft-bloody irritant not only to their own security but also continuing cooperation. 

The Taliban, in their campaign against Daesh, find it difficult to antagonise that surviving section of the “Pakistani Taliban” who did not join the self-styled caliphate. Yet, that same group continues to threaten Pakistan, thus posing a latent tension in tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban emirate in Kabul.

Before the Soviet invasion

This daunting mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan has been characterised by its historical autonomy from both states. State control was often exercised on the Pakistani side by a colonial-style “indirect rule”, which was not initially unpopular since it lent a large degree of tribal autonomy but would come under increasing stress over the decades. There was a similarly loose accord with local clansmen on the Afghan side. 

Conflict – partly stoked by Afghan ruler Daud Khan’s attempts to build Pashtun irredentism as a political vehicle – occasionally flared up, but more often than not the local actors were less proxies than shrewd actors: for example, the short border conflict of the early 1960s largely involved Kabul backing the claimant of Bajaur agency against his incumbent Pakistan-backed rival.

War and upheaval in the borderlands

Attempts by both governments to control these regions were largely unsuccessful, and in the late 1970s exploded into full-fledged competition with the communist coup in Kabul. The Khalq party in Kabul brooked no respect for traditional clan structure, and its brutal assault on the clans uprooted much of the structure along with thousands of Afghans. 

On the other hand, the resultant vacuum was soon filled in by well-armed militants – both “mujahideen” resistance and, in an effort to interdict them, state-backed militias. By the 1980s the Afghan east was politically fragmented and heavily militarised, and the effect of the Afghan war extended into the Pakistani northwest, where many of the Afghan refugees had gone.

The closest that any centralist actor came to imposing central control was the Pakistan-backed Hizb Islamist party, which had a strong constituency in the Afghan east and whose top-ranked leaders Kashmir Rahmatyar and Wahidullah Sabawoon were veteran commanders in Kunar. 

The late Soviet occupation also saw the regime soften its communist stance and, under the leadership of Mohammad Najibullah, attempt to form militias against the mujahideen. These militias operated on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and saw attempts by both Islamabad and the mujahideen to crush them.

But none of these opposed factors – Kabul and its militias, Islamabad and Hizb – ever managed to bridge the fragmentation in this highland region. Attempts at creating enclaves were first unsuccessfully negotiated with and eventually routed.

A more successful experiment was a council of commanders, led by Abdul Qadeer Arsala of a notable mujahideen family, in Jalalabad during 1992-96, but its success was only relative insofar as it provided competing commanders a forum to settle their frequent disputes. Notably, the Jalalabad council invited Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden back to Afghanistan in 1996, just months before the Taliban takeover of Jalalabad.

The Taliban’s “emirate” had no more success, and indeed faced on and off resistance while bin Laden effectively operated under the Taliban’s nose with little regard to their reservations. 

Similarly, with bin Laden escaping into Pakistan against an American manhunt, the Taliban’s ouster brought little more coordination: the commanders, including Abdul Qadeer’s nephew Abdul Zahir, who pursued bin Laden squabbled amongst themselves. Abdul Qadeer, who became deputy for Hamid Karzai, was assassinated within a year.

Post-American invasion

By that point, the sweeping American dragnet – heavy-handed and often blatantly ignorant of local dynamics – had alienated much of the region. This included Hizb leader Kashmir Rahmatyar, who had welcomed the American invasion at first but changed his mind once the dragnet targeted him. It also included his Salafi rivals; Jamilur-Rahman’s nephew Rauhullah Wakil returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster, only to be imprisoned by the Americans for years. 

The upshot was that by the mid-2000s an insurgency had established itself in the Afghan east, and unlike most of the country it was not monopolised by the Taliban movement. This insurgency – led by both Taliban commanders as well as Hizb and Salafi adventurers – succeeded in expelling the Americans from the east by the early 2010s.

The war also affected Pakistan. Even as bin Laden was fleeing Afghanistan, Sufi Muhammad, a Malakand preacher, entered in an attempt to fight the Americans that was rebuffed with bruising casualties. Within a few years, however, Sufi’s son-in-law Fazlullah Hayat led the takeover of the Swat valley in the late 2000s. 

This extraordinary turnaround partly resulted from Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf’s attempt to balance an open commitment to the United States with tacit support for the Taliban; Islamabad squared the circle by instead mounting large manhunts for Al Qaeda members in such northwestern agencies as Waziristan under an increasingly brazen American aerial campaign. 

Opposition figures like Fazlullah and a number of commanders from the Mahsud clan – Obaidullah Baitullah, Jamshaid Hakeemullah, and others – drew on the subsequent outrage to target the Pakistani state.

This was too far for the Afghan Taliban, who relied on a Pakistani fallback, and on several occasions, they – and in particular their seasoned regional commanders, the Haqqanis – attempted to mediate between Islamabad and the “Pakistani Taliban”, as the agency's insurgency was rather misleadingly called. 

In fact the TTP insurgency was, like the eastern Afghan insurgency, a highly fragmented coalition who only selectively abided by their nominal fealty to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Indeed, an increasing number were co-opted by an Afghan intelligence eager, as its communist predecessor had been, to make Pakistan pay for supporting the Afghan insurgency.

In summer 2014, amid increased friction between Fazlullah and his Mahsud rivals, the Pakistani army mounted a major campaign that wrested control of the entire agencies, which by 2018 would be merged into the northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and thus end a seventy-year status of decreasingly benign neglect. 

The TTP fragmented sharply, and a large number, led by Orakzai commander Saeed Khan and including Hakeemullah’s cousin Haji Daud, joined the latest game in town, the self-styled caliphate that had just sprouted in Iraq. Fazlullah himself escaped to eastern Afghanistan, where an American drone strike eventually killed him. 

His successor Nur Wali Mehsud resisted the temptation to join Daesh, and increasingly focussed on building the remainder of the TTP into a more organised group, with the less ambitious aim of capturing the northwest highlands and at least an officially less brutal policy than its forerunners.

Meanwhile Daesh, based in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, overwhelmingly attacked and tried to displace the Taliban insurgency. This full-on warfare necessitated major Taliban resources led by some of their most seasoned commanders – including many of the Haqqanis’ lieutenants. 

The Afghan government stance on Daesh varied locally; in some areas, they were quietly tolerated as a counterweight to the Taliban insurgency, but a strong contrary case was Kunar governor Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, who agreed to cooperate with a major Taliban campaign against Daesh in 2019.

The United States, never slow to mount an airstrike, resorted to bombing the Taliban and Daesh – and interrupting two major Taliban campaigns – before, after the February 2020 Doha Accord, withdrawing to watch the Taliban force finish off Daesh that spring. 

The complicated nature of Daesh’s links with the Kabul security was underscored; Haji Musa, the leading Daesh field commander in the defeat, was protected after surrendering to Kabul, but the Daesh governor-general Abu Omar Ziaul-Haq was captured along with his successor Aslam Abdullah.

The borderlands today

Since then, Daesh in Afghanistan, led by Shihab Sadiq, has followed the same strategy of Nur Wali in Pakistan and other defeated groups elsewhere – compensating for territorial sparsity with high-profile assassinations and bomb attacks, and thus proving a major headache for the already isolated Taliban emirate that has returned to Kabul. 

In turn, the Taliban find it difficult to alienate such potential allies as Wali, whose abstinence from joining Daesh makes him a potential ally. But Wali’s hostility to Pakistan remains undimmed – he is as much a headache for Islamabad as Shihab is for Kabul.

Thus, much as Pakistan once found itself torn between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, the Taliban emirate finds itself torn between Pakistan and the “Pakistani Taliban”. 

Economic hardship and international isolation seem to render the former a more promising counterpart, especially given that Pakistani insurgents only occasionally honour their proclamations of fealty to the Taliban emirate. 

On the other hand, that same lack of reliability means that the Taliban will be reluctant to yield Daesh a potential collaborator by alienating Nur Wali. In the tortuous calculations of Islamabad-Kabul relations, Wali has managed to advance from the periphery to find himself a neat spoiler’s role.

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