by Fatemeh Aman
A new report by the State Department on terrorism criticizes Pakistan for failing to prevent terrorist groups, especially the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network (HQN), from using Pakistan as a safe haven. But the reality is that these original proxies of Pakistan may no longer be under Islamabad’s control.
The root of insurgency in Afghanistan has multiple causes that reflect and contribute to the country’s fragile security. There are also decades-old disputes between Pakistan and its neighbors that adversely affect Afghanistan’s security situation.
These conflicts include a land dispute that’s nationalist in nature and cannot be resolved easily. The Afghan government has never recognized the Durand line, a 2,430-kilometer border that cuts through Pashtun tribal and Baluch regions, as the international frontier since it was drawn by Britain in 1893 and after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. An effective fight against extremism in these regions is beyond the capacity of any one country and requires transboundary partnership.
All major insurgent groups in Afghanistan apart from the Islamic State—the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, al-Qaeda, and Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network – have received critical support from Pakistan. These groups are not just proxies but partly ideological allies. All follow the Deobandism strain of Islam founded in 1867 in Deoband, India, and supported by Pakistan, formally since 1977 when Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq took control of the government.
A major part of the Taliban’s fighters has been ideologically motivated but not all follow the same strict ideology as al-Qaeda. There were major differences between the Taliban and foreign insurgents’ version of Islam. For instance, the Taliban has not been interested in global jihad. Despite the brutal treatment of members of other Muslim sects, such as Hazara Shia, the Taliban did not commit systematic genocide against religious minorities.
Even though it maintains strong links with Pakistan, the Taliban should not be considered entirely its puppet. For example, the Taliban refused to recognize the Durand line as the Pakistani-Afghan border when in power in the 1990s. This was in spite of Pakistan’s existential support of the group and the pressure exerted upon the Taliban regime to recognize that line of demarcation.
The Taliban’s fight with the government that replaced it after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks wasn’t about ethnicity or religion. The new president, Hamid Karzai, was Pashtun as are the Taliban. The Taliban also follow a different jurisprudence—the Hanafi school—from the Salafist al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which adhere to an even more literalist and puritanical interpretation of Islam. These differences are significant. For a major part of the Taliban, ideology motivated their participation in insurgency, but for others nationalism takes precedence in fighting foreign “occupiers.”
The U.S.-led coalition erred in placing the Taliban in the same category as al-Qaeda and not making space for at least part of the Taliban in the new government. A big part of the Taliban was willing to give up arms and accept the Karzai administration. According to Vahid Mojdeh, a former Taliban foreign ministry official who was also a representative of then-Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, informed Karzai that the Taliban were not seeking war and would support the Afghan government if it imposed shariah law in the country. The Taliban also demanded that their comrades held in Afghan prisons be immune from prosecution. Many Taliban, including some high-ranking former officials, joined the workforce. Mullah Mohammad Hasan, who served as foreign minister in the Taliban government, dug wells in a remote location in Kandahar. They all rejected al-Qaeda’s call to fight the government, Mojdeh writes.
Some Taliban, however, sought revenge over previous persecution by warlords. A classic example is the case of thousands of Taliban prisoners, including those who surrendered to the Northern Alliance forces after the fall of the Taliban regime, that the forces of the brutal warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum intentionally suffocated. Dostum joined the Karzai administration in 2008 as chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Afghan National Army. He currently serves as first vice president under Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Developments such as this may have contributed to the Taliban’s mistrust in the coalition and pushed them further under the influence of Pakistan and Arab supporters.
All governments in Pakistan worry about India’s influence in Afghanistan. There is no reason to think that Pakistan’s behavior will change drastically under the new prime minister, Imran Khan. However, it is possible that Khan, especially if he has the support of the military, will try to ease tensions with India. That could partly improve the situation in Afghanistan. Khan has said he wants to “re-start the stalled dialogue process” over issues such as Kashmir and terrorism—although India cancelled talks scheduled on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. These decades-long disputes will not easily disappear.
Khan seems to understand the value of winning the hearts and minds of people. He announced on September 16 a plan to grant citizenship to almost two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who were born in Pakistan but denied citizenship. If implemented, the policy would be a clear departure from previous harsh stances toward Afghans in Pakistan. The move may be politically motivated since the majority of Afghans in Pakistan are Pashtuns and Pashtuns generally support Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). At the same time, this more humane treatment of Afghans could take votes away from extremist Islamic groups.
Insurgent organizations are very much based on tribal ties and do not necessarily follow a central command. Thus it would be simplistic to assume that Pakistan is in full control of the insurgents in Afghanistan or of Muslim extremism in India. It follows that if Pakistan stops supporting such groups, security in Afghanistan and extremism in India would not necessarily change for the better.
Pakistan also faces a new threat if Islamic State fighters leave embattled Idlib province in Syria and look for another safe haven, mostly likely on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Pakistan by now should have learned the bitter lesson that extremist proxies are difficult to control.