Pakistan's tricky adjustment to the Taliban's return to power next door

·5 min read
Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 4. Pakistan sees challenges and opportunities with the Taliban's return to power in neighbouring Afghanistan.  (Saiyna Bashir/Reuters - image credit)
Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 4. Pakistan sees challenges and opportunities with the Taliban's return to power in neighbouring Afghanistan. (Saiyna Bashir/Reuters - image credit)

A month after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan heralded the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan as "breaking the chains of slavery," his government is adjusting its conflicted relationship with the Taliban and urging the international community to help Afghanistan rather than isolate it.

"[The Taliban government] clearly feels without international aid and help, they will not be able to stop this crisis, so we should incentivize them, push them in the right direction," Khan said in an interview with CNN last week in Islamabad.

Pakistan's foreign minister followed up this week at the United Nations meeting in New York.

"The international community has to realize: What's the alternative? What are the options? This is the reality, and can they turn away from this reality?" Shah Mahmood Qureshi told The Associated Press.

A Taliban government installed next door in Afghanistan, a country in a deep economic crisis, presents Pakistan with some complicated challenges, but also, it says, potential opportunities.

Security top of mind

Jared Thomas/CBC
Jared Thomas/CBC

With the Taliban now in power, many in Pakistan's government believe there is a chance to bring more security to the region.

"We feel more secure in the sense that we know that the government we have in Kabul today is much more sympathetic to the concerns of the neighbouring countries," Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Khan, told CBC News in Islamabad.

"Unfortunately, the governments which have ruled Afghanistan in the last 20 years were not inclined to do this."

Master Sgt. Alex Burnett/U.S. Army/Reuters
Master Sgt. Alex Burnett/U.S. Army/Reuters

After two decades of war, the U.S. and its allies pulled out of Afghanistan, wrapping up a massive and chaotic evacuation on Aug. 30, leaving the country ruled by the Taliban.

The Taliban wants international acceptance, promising an inclusive government, but so far has shown no signs of including women or minorities.

Many Afghans fear a repeat of the Taliban's violent rule in the late 1990s, when women were banned from working or going to school.

The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan has a long and complicated history with Afghanistan, whose conflicts have cost lives in Pakistan as well. The country hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees from previous waves of migration, and up to two million more who are undocumented.

Pakistan's borders are effectively closed to Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban's rule, unless they have a visa or medical exemption to enter Pakistan.

Gibran Peshimam/Reuters
Gibran Peshimam/Reuters

The U.S. and other countries have accused Pakistan's intelligence services of supporting the Taliban with training, money and weaponry, allowing them to live in Pakistan and move back and forth across the border — allegations Pakistan has long denied.

"We have looked after millions of Afghans for a number of years now," said Hasan. "But why is it that the world prefers to just talk about those few [Taliban] families, not about the four million refugees that we still have in Pakistan? It's overstated."

Controlling the narrative

However, now that the Taliban is in power, Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan is being reexamined — in both countries.

"[The Taliban] want to show a bit of a distance between Pakistan and the Taliban now that they are in control, because they don't want to be seen as Pakistan's stooges, or something like that," said Pakistani journalist Haroon Rashid, managing editor of Independent Urdu, an online news service and offshoot of the U.K.-based Independent.

Inside Afghanistan, it will be very difficult for the Taliban to counter the negative reaction, if it builds, "that this is all of Pakistan's men who have taken control," Rashid said in an interview with CBC News.

Zabi Karimi/The Associated Press
Zabi Karimi/The Associated Press

However, one of the first foreign visitors to Afghanistan, just two weeks after the fall of Kabul, was the head of Pakistan's intelligence services (ISI), Lt.-Gen. Faiz Hameed.

That visit on Sept. 4 fuelled speculation in the region that Hameed was counselling the Taliban on the make up of their new government and strategizing about quelling resistance, which the Pakistan government denies.

"If you go by the Taliban statement, the visit was fruitful," said Rashid.

Jared Thomas/CBC
Jared Thomas/CBC

But the optics were curious, he said, as Hameed was scrummed by reporters in the hotel hallway holding a cup of tea, smiling and saying, "Don't worry, everything will be OK."

"The picture of General Faiz Hameed with a cup of tea ... was it intentional? Or was it just to show off that ISI is in quite a comfortable position in Afghanistan or something like that?"

Inspiring extremists

Behind Pakistan's strategic calm, there is increased vigilance on the border, says Pakistan's interior minister, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, amid concern the Taliban's rise will embolden extremist groups in both countries.

"We will not allow anybody to attack inside of Afghanistan from Pakistan, and we will not allow anybody to attack from Afghanistan into Pakistan," Ahmad told CBC News in Islamabad. "This is decided. There is no compromise on this."

Jared Thomas/CBC
Jared Thomas/CBC

A United Nations report released in June 2021 said approximately 8,000-10,000 "foreign terrorist fighters" were in Afghanistan, and a 2020 report said 6,000 fighters were from Pakistan, affiliated with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group that has attacked Pakistan's security forces.

A Sept. 5 suicide attack in Quetta, Pakistan, located on the border near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers, and seven more soldiers died in a gunfight with the TTP near the border in northwestern Pakistan on Sept. 15.

Divided opinion

Despite the concerns, the new Taliban government does inspire hope for peace among some Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

"America's army has gone back and the Taliban will work best for us," said Tasal Khan Nurzad, an Afghan in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His father, a doctor, came to Pakistan as a refugee back in 2000.

Susan Ormiston/CBC
Susan Ormiston/CBC

Nurzad's cousins live across the border in Afghanistan.

"We are happy now," he said, referring to his family on both sides, though he acknowledged peace in Afghanistan will take time. "We will give them time, and the Taliban will bring peace."

In these early days of Taliban rule, few can predict what will transpire in the region, and some in Pakistan dread the insecurity that could follow.

Rashid says the liberals and the moderates in Pakistan worry the Taliban's rise to power will "give strength to the religious hardliners in Pakistan to come forward and take charge."

"So you get a divided opinion in Pakistan."

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