The Taliban and Pakistan face a conundrum over their border

By Will Xue Barlow*
Guest Contributor

The Afghan Taliban leadership council have announced the cabinet of their self-proclaimed Emirate. It consists of many old faces of the Taliban Quetta Shura (council), who themselves were formed around a core of 10 former Taliban leaders and ministers who fled to Quetta, Pakistan, in 2001. These 33 ministers include Sirajuddin Haqqani as the Minister of the Interior, and Abdul Ghani Baradar as the Deputy Prime Minister and de facto leader. The new government in Kabul will need to assert their authority over the decentralised network of militants and warlords which have brought them to power. The US-led coalition has withdrawn, and when the dust starts to settle the victors will have to reckon with their dire economic situation and the reality of governing their state and establishing an authority. They will have to achieve this without a clear foreign enemy to unite against, and whilst transitioning their insurgent organisational structure into a formalised authority. It is a situation which is liable to break down into civil war between Jihadists with competing visions. This would not be unprecedented, as a messy civil war broke out in the 90’s after the Socialist forces were defeated and was not resolved by the time of the US invasion in 2001.

In the background is Pakistan, a country which Hamid Karzai once described as Afghanistan’s “inseparable brother”. The Pakistani-Afghan relationship is deeply rooted in the history and geography of these two neighbouring countries, and it is difficult to emphasise how intertwined the two are.

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has a deep history of involvement with the Afghan Taliban, and particularly the Haqqani Network, a powerful sub-faction. Pakistani PM Imran Khan heralded the Taliban victory in a video announcement, where he lauded the Taliban as “normal civilians” responsible for “breaking the shackles of slavery”. Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News encountered the ISI Chief Faiz Hameed in her hotel in Kabul on the 4th of September, there on what she suggested is an unofficial consultation with the Taliban leadership on the topic of establishing a professional military. But there are deep resentments felt by many Afghans, and Pashtos in Pakistan, towards the Pakistani government. This spans subsections of Pashto and Afghan societies, and even includes organised militant groups which compete with the Afghan Taliban. This includes Daesh Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group distinct from the Afghan Taliban; both ISKP and TTP assisted the Taliban in Afghanistan in their recent military campaigns against the Afghan National Army, but otherwise compete with the Afghan Taliban, oftentimes violently clashing.

The Durand Line, Pashto Nationalism and the TTP insurgency

At the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1893, the Durand Line was established. This is the legal border that survives to this day as the Afghan-Pakistan Border, despite it bisecting the Pashto heartland. No Afghan Government has ever formally recognised this border, up to and including Ashraf Ghani. It would be a bold position for the Taliban leadership to now formally recognise this border, which splits the Pashto heartland in half. This has been a porous border, but perhaps not for long, as Pakistan nears finishing a 2,600km border fence, complete with surveillance systems. The Pakistani military cited as their reasoning the frequent attacks on their military and on civilians in recent years. Both the former Ghani government and Pakistani officials accused the other of allowing militants to cross the border. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that both claims are valid, including the lesser known links between the Afghan National Directorate of Security, and the TTP. The Afghan National Army often skirmished with Pakistani Forces, notably in 2017 where scores laid dead after a battle over Pakistani census takers. Beyond the erstwhile Afghan governments conflict with Pakistan, Pashto nationalism has been flaring up in Pakistan, in vastly different forms.

Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan has reformed since 2018, under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, after a period of splintering and infighting threatened the existence of the group. The group originated in al-Qaeda aligned Pakistani Pashtos who had fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but diverged most notably in their strict opposition to the Pakistani government. They began to collapse around 2014, in part as a radical wing split off and formed the ISKP, although the embattled ISKP have now themselves begun to disintegrate, with several cells reintegrating back into TTP now. They have particularly been ramping up activities since summer of 2020, integrating independent militant groups, reorganising its command structure, and instituting rules of engagement and valid targets for their franchisees. Analysts such as Sayed and Hamming have suggested that the noticeable reduction in civilian casualties in their recent attacks, and their support for the Pashtun Tahafuz movement in Pakistan suggests they are aiming to expand popular support. More concerning still is the release of many TTP prisoners from Afghan prisons by the Taliban.

The Pashtun Tahafuz movement erupted in 2018 across Pakistan, not just in traditionally Pashto cities like Quetta and Peshawar, but even in Karachi and Lahore.The protests arose because of Pashto grievances against the Pakistani government’s repression of Pashtos, in the wake of their brutal conflict with TTP; the extrajudicial killings of Pakistani Pashtos, deployment of landmines in Pashto areas such as Waziristan, and the 2018 integration of previously separate Pashto tribal authorities into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK). The more inclusive, cosmopolitan character of the Tahafuz movement is notable, with Pashto women featuring prominently as protest leaders.

The Taliban’s stance on Pakistan

The predominantly Pashto Afghan Taliban must make clear their stance on Pakistan. The ISI and certain Pakistani leaders seem to prefer the more religion cantered, and less nationalistic Afghan Taliban. But the already complex and shifting relationships between the ISI and Taliban leaders are going to have to weather a vastly different situation as the Taliban transition into a new government of Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network features in this new government, but they themselves have been playing their leverage against the ISI by occasionally offering refuge to the TTP and supporting them.

On the 15th of September, reports emerged from Kabul that there had been a heated argument between the Haqqani Minister for Refugees and Abdul Ghani Baradar, and that their respective supporters physically brawled. They were reputedly arguing over whether the Taliban victory should be credited more to diplomacy, as Baradar and the supposed moderates advocate, or combat, as the militant Haqqani network suggest. This seemingly arbitrary division likely reflects a deeper fault line, one with serious implications for the direction of the new Afghanistan. One expression of this division could easily be over the Durand Line. Would a diplomatic resolution with Pakistan over the border and international legitimacy be valuable, or even workable? Or is a victory over the US-coalition a greenlight to irredentist claims against Pakistan, bringing other militant groups into the fold against a government that Afghans and Pakistani Pashtos and Balochis tend to regard with disdain? The ever-changing relationships between the various strongmen and self-sustaining militant groups will be difficult to manage for the new Afghan government, even more so for the ISI.

The Taliban leadership can try to avoid the topic for as long as possible, but eventually they must reckon with their stance on Pakistan. They are in a bind. Whether they proclaim a message of opposition against Pakistan, or openly acknowledge Pakistan and their border, they are in for trouble.


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*WX Barlow is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. He completed his studies in History and the History of Ideas at Goldsmiths, UoL during which he focussed primarily on connections and conflicts between Theology and Politics in 19th and 20th century Russian, Iranian and Chinese history. Will currently works in education, and in his own time writes on topics concerning the Middle East and the wider region.

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