Pakistan and the Taliban’s long-term relationship is likely to evolve with the progress of intra-afghan talks. Pakistan has played a substantial and crucial role in closing the deal between the US and the Taliban because it enjoys a relationship with the US and has influence over the Taliban. Pakistan and the Taliban have strong connections since the early 1990s. However, as the negotiations between Afghanistan’s political leadership and Taliban approach, the Taliban seems to pull themselves out of Pakistan’s shadow. They are vying for complete autonomy and establishing a relationship with other states as well. Pakistan has its interests in peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan friendly government. That is why they have supported the peace process unequivocally. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban is more complicated than we assume.
Pakistan and the Taliban have a relationship since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan has supported them and has provided sanctuaries to them. Pakistan was one of the seven countries recognizing the Taliban government in Kabul in 2001. Since then, they are under the wings of Pakistan. After 9/11 and the US war on terror in Afghanistan, they have kept their relationship covert. That is why the US has accused Pakistan of the double game and differentiating between good and bad Taliban.
Why is Pakistan accused of the double game? – because of its policy to see Afghanistan as its strategic depth/ backyard. Now Pakistan wants a government in Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan or not at least pro India- which has invested millions in Afghanistan. Moreover, it enjoys a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the current Afghan government. It does not want an entirely Taliban-led government in Kabul. Taliban triumph might be a victory for Pakistan also. Still, seeing this, the religious parties may gain momentum, taking Kabul as a role model, and may fight for the conservative government in Pakistan as well. So, the government of consensus will be favorable for Pakistan. In this way, it can keep influence on the Taliban. Also, Pakistan wants regional security and peace and silent guns on its western border.
Now that after two decades of constant war between the West and the Taliban and the election of President Donald Trump – with the promise to pull out of the Afghanistan war- both sides decided to come to the table to bring endgame. The US needed Pakistan to convince the Taliban for negotiations. And the Taliban wanted a US-Taliban deal before intra-afghan negotiations. After deft maneuvering, the US-Taliban deal was sealed. After the said deal was closed, the Taliban started its efforts to come out of Pakistan’s influence. And negotiations between the Taliban and Afghanistan current leadership became subject to persistent delays.
However, it is accessed that Pakistan’s control of the Taliban is waning down. Taliban wants support form the general afghan public, which is very critical of Pakistan. To get their support, they need to manifest that they are independent entities, not Pakistan’s proxy. An example of this is that intra-afghan peacebuilding efforts will occur in Doha, Tashkent, and Oslo. Islamabad is not in the game as its now an internal matter of Afghanistan. It is an effort to soften their image among the Afghan public.
Secondly, the shuffle in Taliban leadership and new appointments indicate that the new leaders have little to no contact with Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan’s connections with the Taliban’s old guards might not work now. Also, as the Taliban control significant regions of their country, they no longer need sanctuaries in Pakistan. Hence to assume that Pakistan can handle all these newcomers is an exaggerated assumption.
Thirdly, a new generation of Taliban sees Doha as a guarantor of its interest rather than Islamabad- whose strings can easily be pulled by the US, as in FATF.
Fourthly, Islamabad itself is influenced and pressurized by the US easily. The US pressure can reach to Taliban Indirectly through Islamabad; therefore, they want to get out of that as well.
Lastly, the Taliban has signed a deal with global power getting it on its knees. It has established itself as an autonomous identity. It is trying to display itself independent politically and financially.
Furthermore, the Taliban’s Qatar office has allowed them to establish a relationship with other regional states such as China, Russia, and Iran. These states saw the rise of the Islamic State of Khorasan as a regional security threat. Therefore, they aligned themselves with the Taliban and provided material support so that they can eradicate them.
On the other hand, despite Pakistan, numerous complaints Taliban has not done anything about Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan. They are also keeping them as a bargaining chip against Pakistan.
Keeping all this in view, it is, therefore, important for Pakistan to think beyond the Taliban and prudently devise its foreign policy. It should make efforts to get in touch with other ethnicities and political groups of Afghanistan. Pakistan should bring a shift in its security-centric policy to a more holistic and comprehensive policy.
In short, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban had never been brotherly but based on mutual interests and the dearth of alternatives. It was based on the former’s aspiration to control the group and the latter’s aspiration to get strategic autonomy. Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban ascended when the Taliban was weak and descended when the Taliban gained significant gains. Notwithstanding the outcome of intra-afghan negotiations, Pakistan should look for other Afghanistan options as its influence on the Taliban seems debilitating.