In April 2021, after 20 years of occupation, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by the following September. Since then, the Taliban has rapidly taken over the country, and in mid-August, now-former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, announced his resignation. The country is now under the control of the Taliban and is called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has come under heavy fire for its involvement in the rise of the Taliban and the group’s takeover of Afghanistan. In his last speech to the country, Ghani said that Pakistan played a “negative role in the Afghanistan conflict.” However, Pakistan has continually denied any involvement with the Taliban or role in the current situation in Afghanistan.
The Taliban is an extremist group that has been active in Afghanistan since the early 1990s. It emerged in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and parts of northern Pakistan which borders Afghanistan. The Taliban weaponizes Islam and the concept of ‘jihad’ to achieve its aims. Its role in Afghanistan is generally divided into three time periods. First, it held power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, creating the first government under which Sharia law was strictly enforced. Second, between 2002 and 2021, it entered an insurgency period after the US invasion pushed it out of power. Finally, its new, second stint in government began in August 2021.
Pakistan’s Contribution to the Rise of the Taliban
The government of Pakistan undeniably played a role in the upkeep of the Afghanistan war, mainly through its financial and logistical support of the Taliban. Despite Pakistan’s denial of any involvement, there is evidence that the government funded and trained the Taliban, provided fuel and ammunition, and even recruited militants.
However, the type of influence Pakistan now has on the Taliban is different than it was 20 years ago. In an interview with The Print, Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the situation, said that while Pakistan previously supplied the Taliban with arms, money, and ammunition, the country now has “a different kind of influence.” For years, the Taliban was based out of Pakistan seeing as the American military presence made Afghanistan a hostile environment. Even now, the organization’s infrastructure and members of its leadership are based in Pakistan. Rashid explains that not getting the Taliban out of Pakistan when it had the opportunity was the country’s biggest mistake and is the reason why it is blamed for the situation in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed admitted that Pakistan is a safe haven for Taliban militants and their families. They are allowed to move freely, transport men and materials into Afghanistan, use Pakistani hospitals, and communicate with others in Afghanistan. Harbouring the Taliban and offering them support are the main reasons why Pakistan is being repeatedly mentioned as a large contributor to the conflict.
In addition, ISI, the Pakistan intelligence agency, is accused of funding warlords and the Taliban, and for having training bases in Pakistan for the Taliban. As such, the ISI heavily contributes to making the Taliban a strong military force. In 2015, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the ISI-backed Haqqani network, was appointed to be one of the deputy leaders of the Taliban. The Haqqani network is a Sunni Islamist militant organization that is based in North Waziristan, Pakistan. It coordinates cross-border operations from Pakistan to parts of Afghanistan.
How Pakistan Reacts
Pakistan continuously denies claims of its involvement and instead questions the role of the Afghan government in its failure to stop the Taliban from taking over. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, said that blaming Pakistan was “extremely unfair” and opposed claims that Pakistan was involved, stating that Pakistan would also be negatively affected by the presence of the Taliban. Khan pointed out that Pakistan suffered 70,000 casualties over the last 15 years due to this conflict, and that he is trying to avoid more from occurring. Lastly, he claimed that the corrupt government and practices that were occurring in Afghanistan were what allowed the Taliban to overtake the country with such ease.
Other Factors Involved
In part, the former government of Afghanistan did play a role in its own demise. Practices of corruption and an overall weak state made it easy for it to be taken over by the Taliban. “Weak state” is a term that is used to define states that are unable to or weak in their ability to provide security and basic services and do not have legitimacy with their citizens. The corruption that existed in Afghanistan resulted in Afghan citizens being left without adequate security, resources, and other basic necessities. This corruption normalized extreme levels of bribery. Further, corruption within the Afghan military and police prevented them from combating the Taliban and other insurgency movements in parts of the country.
Another factor contributing to the instability in Afghanistan is its history of experiencing colonialism and being under the rule of many different actors, such as the British and the Soviet Union. After those states were ousted, Afghanistan was left to deal with the aftermath. This set the country up for its future of instability. After the 1978 Afghan war, political instability caused many Afghans to find ways to oppose the state. These included the movement of commodities such as drugs and joining terrorist groups that they hoped would be able to bring change.
To many, Afghanistan would be considered a failed state. However, while the country holds responsibility to a certain extent, surrounding nations, especially the US, have played a massive role in this instability. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the name of the so-called “war on terror” with the mission of ousting the Taliban. Yet, the US largely failed to achieve these goals; those threats the US has said it is trying to eliminate have remained resilient and present. The war led to the collapse of Afghan infrastructure, safety, and public health, as well as about 241,000 deaths within the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001.
While a destabilized Afghanistan was not a large concern for the US, the Americans wanted to keep Pakistan as an ally. In fact, in 2008, then Vice-President Joe Biden said that “Pakistan is 50 times more important than Afghanistan for the United States.” Pakistan is a useful ally to the US as it supports the US in the war of terror; Pakistan’s geographic location makes it so that it will continue to have a role in Afghanistan. There are also economic gains that the US attains through its relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan has economic relations with China, with an example being them giving China the management of Gwadar port. This port is also important for the US and thus, the US wants to maintain good ties with Pakistan. As Pakistan benefited from the instability by selling weapons, intelligence, and protection to the Afghan Taliban, this further convinced the US to maintain its destructive occupation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not deemed as a useful ally to America, so working to ensure it is in good standing is unimportant to them.
Consequences that Pakistan will Face
The Taliban’s return to power has consequences for Pakistan as well. The Taliban’s resurgence has displaced many Afghans fleeing violence who are now turning to Pakistan to be accepted as refugees. Pakistan hosts 1.4 million Afghan refugees in total since the Soviet invasion in 1979. The power of the Taliban also emboldens the rise of local terrorist groups in Pakistan that are in support of the Taliban. These groups, including one called Tehrike-Taliban Pakistan, work to overthrow Pakistan with similar jihadist and sectarian values as the Taliban. In the past, between 2007-2014, the Pakistani Taliban carried out a deadly terrorist campaign until the leaders fled to Afghanistan after the Pakistani military began to crack down on them. Fears that similar violence will reemerge are growing.
The future of Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is still largely uncertain. While Pakistan can deny its role in the rising conflict, it, along with many other factors, has contributed to the complex web of war that engulfs Afghanistan.