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What’s the Endgame for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

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The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

What’s the Endgame for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The Taliban’s nationalist faction, if triumphant over the Pakistan-backed extremists, could help bring peace to the region.

What’s the Endgame for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban government, left, and Taliban’s Refugee and Repatriation Minister Haji Khalil ur Rahman Haqqani, right, attend a ceremony marking the 9th anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the late leader and founder of the Taliban, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

In 1947, Pakistan emerged as an independent country in the wake of the Partition from India. That year, Afghanistan was the only country that voted against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations. Since that time, the relationship between the two countries has remained strained as deep disputes remain. The undeclared war between them is far from over. 

At present, Pakistan is doubling down on hopes for complete domination of Afghanistan by backing the most extreme elements of the Taliban, which could lead to mass armed uprisings by Afghans against Pakistani domination and renewed conflict in the region. Western engagement therefore should focus on empowering the nationalist elements of the Taliban to outmaneuver the extremists backed by Pakistan in order to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict: internally with other Afghans, and externally with Pakistan.

Undeclared Wars

From 1947 to 1978, Afghanistan was heavily involved in the internal affairs of Pakistan, where separatist Pashtuns and Balochs received political, financial, and military support from Kabul as Afghanistan sought to realize its demand to renegotiate its border — the so-called Durand Line — with Pakistan.

The 1978 collapse of Mohammad Daud Khan’s government and the Communist takeover of Kabul allowed Pakistan to turn the tables on Afghanistan. Islamabad welcomed Afghans who fled the Communist regime and allowed them to form militias, popularly known as Mujahideen — financed, trained, and armed by the Pakistani government to wage jihad against the Communist government. 

The Cold War, and the eventual involvement of Western countries in the Afghan conflict, placed Pakistan at the center of the effort to defeat the Soviet invasion. During this period, Pakistan was the primary channel through which the Afghan Mujahideen were funded and armed by the Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia) and the West (especially the United States). Pakistan maintained control over the Mujahideen by dividing them into various ethnic and regionally oriented political parties. 

With the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Communist government in Kabul in 1992, Pakistan’s role as a key player in Afghan affairs only grew. Afghanistan descended into civil war, along fault lines largely defined by the various camps Pakistan had created for the 1980s-era Mujahedeen. Leveraging these structures, Pakistan sought to control events through proxies beholden to Islamabad — or more accurately, Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Thus did Pakistan launch its proxy: the Taliban.

Pakistan’s Taliban Policy

With Pakistani military and financial support, the Taliban were able to control large swathes of Afghanistan, eventually seizing Kabul in 1996.  

But after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to 9/11 and the rapid defeat of the Taliban government, the tables turned once again. Initially, Pakistan played a supportive role while seeking to shape Afghanistan’s security sector and foreign policy. But Pakistan, realizing it could no longer directly control Afghanistan’s domestic and foreign affairs, reverted to its earlier policy of meddling via subversive proxies – it supported a re-launched Taliban against Afghan and Western military forces for the next two decades.

As U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban insurgency (and its Pakistani sponsors) gained momentum and succeeded in quickly capturing all of Afghanistan’s territory, including Kabul, by August 15, 2021. The rapid Taliban victory surprised the Pakistanis, however, who may have hoped for a more protracted conflict, which would have allowed them to tighten their grip on the Taliban by empowering the more extreme factions, who are more susceptible to the Pakistani agenda. 

At present, the Pakistani establishment does not support the Taliban as the permanent government of Afghanistan for the following reasons. First, unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban were firmly under the control of the Pakistani establishment, the current Taliban have developed ties with other governments including Qatar, Iran, the UAE, Russia, China, and even have direct engagements with India and the United States. Hence, the Taliban are no longer fully under the control of Rawalpindi. 

Second, contrary to the 1990s, when the divide among the regional countries allowed for an Afghan government-in-exile and military resistance with both military and diplomatic support to challenge Taliban’s authority inside and outside Afghanistan, this time around, there is no government-in-exile, and there is no major resistance against the Taliban’s rule inside the country. In part as a result of this, regional and extra-regional countries seem more open to possible recognition, if the Taliban fulfill their commitments under the Doha agreement to negotiate with other Afghans and form an inclusive Islamic government, cooperate on counterterrorism, and respect human rights, and women’s rights. 

Third, the Taliban leaders have not forgotten 2001 when Pakistan switched overnight from a sponsor to an enemy cooperating with the United States to defeat the Taliban’s regime. Some Taliban leaders hold personal grudges against the Pakistani establishment for the harsh treatment they received while residing in Pakistan.

Pakistan is clearly worried, and rightly so. Hence, unlike the 1990s, Islamabad has not recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Nothing illustrates the divisions inside the Taliban leadership so much as the cruel ban on girls’ education, which is widely believed by nationalist circles within the Taliban to be the work of the ISI and extremist elements of the Taliban who are closely aligned with Rawalpindi, as they are trying to undermine efforts that could pave the way for the Taliban’s recognition by the international community. As a result, there is an ongoing competition for power, which is played out in the form of violent armed clashes, assassinations, and suicide attacks between the two opposing Taliban camps: the extremists backed by the Pakistani establishment and the nationalists. 

A win for the extremist faction of the Taliban would essentially mean total victory for Pakistan against Afghanistan in the long-running undeclared war. The Taliban could follow through with more draconian laws, further isolating the regime internationally and making it more dependent on Islamabad, as in the 1990s, which would put Afghanistan at risk of becoming Pakistan’s de facto fifth province. This worst-case scenario for Afghanistan, however, is likely to prove unsustainable for Pakistan. Aside from serious questions about Pakistan’s capability to keep Afghanistan under its control, such an overt move may also trigger popular uprisings and armed resistance. This could result in renewed conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which could also involve large scale armed uprising by the Pashtun and Baloch populations on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. In essence, the Pakistani policy to force a worst-case scenario on Afghanistan could in turn force a worst-case scenario on Pakistan itself.  

The Endgame for Afghanistan and Pakistan

It remains to be seen whether the nationalists will be able to win out over the extremists in the Taliban’s internal power struggle. So far, current events inside Afghanistan suggest that the nationalists, if effectively engaged by the West, could prevail over the extremists. The West could help the nationalists by imposing further restrictions and sanctions on the extremists to prevent them from having access to positions and resources in the government and by delegitimizing them abroad. The diplomatic representatives in Kabul should only engage with nationalist elements in the Taliban and avoid meeting and providing photo ops for the extremists.

If the Taliban nationalists become ascendant in Kabul and Kandahar, we could see attempts at negotiations with other Afghan factions, including opposition ethnic leaders, women, and youth, as well as with an expanding circle of international actors. In an optimistic scenario, such engagements could lead to the evolution of an inclusive, Islamic Afghanistan government that could earn recognition from the international community. Such a government would lift the ban on girl’s education and serve as a reliable counterterrorism partner for the West.

An internationally recognized Afghan government taking steps toward normality would be well-positioned to engage Pakistan as an equal partner, to discuss and resolve key disputes including the Durand Line, and to represent the views of Afghans all over the country. Such a scenario would finally allow Afghanistan and Pakistan to put an end to their destructive cycle of undeclared wars and instead move toward mutually beneficial economic projects, regional integration, and prosperity that would better serve their people, the region, and the world.