As the war on terror rages into its 14th year gains and losses echo throughout the campaign. In Afghanistan the Taliban was swiftly defeated only to reemerge a short time later. Questions abound as to why the Taliban has been able to regroup and reemerge as a significant threat to stability. Our ally, Pakistan, has also been under the microscope by US intelligence officials and has even been accused of aiding the Taliban domestically.
The relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan is a long and convoluted one. Depending on the point of view, the Pakistani government has been a steadfast supporter, or a staunch antagonist, to the Taliban. Currently, there is some question as to whether or not the Pakistanis are playing both sides of this conflict; supporting America as an ally in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) or helping the Taliban by providing intelligence support and safe haven.
Determining what role the Taliban plays in Pakistani politics and whether or not there is a greater threat to their current government and its support for US interests is a daunting task. To begin, it is important to look at the history of the two before analyzing current trends.
Brief history of the Taliban and its relationship with Pakistan
The Taliban emerged as part of the Mujahideen movement during the Soviet invasion which began in 1979. In 1994 the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan shortly after the ejection of the Soviets. With the promise of restoring peace and security in Pashtun areas surrounding the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban rose to prominence and enforced strict adherence to Sharia law.
Pakistani funding and supply was critical to the Taliban movement and its rise to power. With assistance in the form of weapons, military training and financial support the Taliban was able to capture several Afghan cities. In 1996 they successfully took control of Kabul.
During the Taliban’s reign prior to the US invasion, from the 1990’s to 2001, Pakistan was one of only three nations that recognized the legitimacy of the regime, the other two being Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At the height of their involvement, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency, (ISI), was supplying the Taliban with hundreds of military advisors, small units of their Special Services Group, and thousands of Pakistani Pashtuns to man its infantry. Following international condemnation for harboring Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, they were the last country to break diplomatic ties with the Taliban.
Pakistan/Taliban relationship post-GWOT
Since the beginning of the GWOT there has been suspicion that Pakistan has been playing both sides; an ally to the US on one side and secretly aiding the Taliban on the other. In general, the central Pakistani government has been the supporter of the United States, while the ISI is accused of, at best, being sympathetic to the Taliban cause and at worst, giving them aid.
A 2012 study published by NATO alleged that, following their toppling by coalition forces, ISI support for the Taliban was crucial to their reemergence in 2004. Without Pakistani assistance, it said, there would have been no hope for rebuilding a Taliban capable of combating the US and her allies.
Allegations of ISI involvement with the Taliban predate the 2012 NATO report. In a leaked report in 2006 the British Defense Ministry stated
“Indirectly, Pakistan through the ISI has been supporting terrorism and extremism.”
In 2008, Afghan officials accused the ISI of plotting a failed assassination attempt on then President Hamid Karzai, as well as insinuating their involvement with a terrorist attack on the Indian embassy. Indian officials also laid blame the attack on the ISI. In 2009, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates said in an interview with 60 minutes: “To a certain extent, they play both sides.”
Taliban/ISI political influence in Pakistan
Accusations this year have brought up the idea that the ISI, which is responsible for dealing with external threats to the country, has been increasingly meddling with internal politics. Insiders accused the military and the ISI of stirring up political turmoil amidst accusations that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power via fraud.
Representatives Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qudri accused Sharif’s government of rigging elections. Khan’s former party president, after being removed from power by Khan, stated that the party has been working closely with the ISI to undermine Sharif’s government with the promise of new elections should he be successfully ousted.
Pakistan political expert Aqil Shah said the military establishment is stirring up violence to send a message to parties not to meddle with them lest they face severe consequences. By manipulating anti-Sharif representatives the military seeks to position itself to be an arbiter for change. Once Sharif is out of the picture the ISI and the military can exercise greater control over the political process.
Stepping in to fill the void in poor areas lacking healthcare infrastructure, education and civic amenities, the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistani (TTP) has a long and enduring presence along the outskirts of the country in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA). Other accusations that the ISI and the Taliban are in bed spring from the perception that the Taliban is affecting the political process via intimidation. According to liberal politicians, Pakistani Taliban have been increasing their attacks on the liberal parties. A former official from the Awami National Party stated he was forced to leave Karachi after 25 of his offices were threatened by Taliban forces. A senior Karachi police officer said that the Taliban are swiftly expanding their influence amongst the poor suburbs as well as the city center.
The Awami National Party (ANP), The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) have all been targeted for their secular platforms and opposition to Islamic extremism. As a result, they are unable to run effective campaigns and voters are intimidated come election time. They inevitably suffer defeat at the polls due to diminished support thus increasing TTP influence.
The Taliban’s influence is not limited to political persuasion, however. In suburbs across Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub, Taliban “courts” have emerged to settle disputes amongst residents. The fact that these courts are operating at all suggests that the public is becoming increasingly tolerant and sympathetic to Taliban presence. Their influence has the potential to shift political support in their favor as they extend into major cities like Karachi. Such power shift is a major concern for the US and its allies since they rely heavily on Pakistani support in the tribal regions.
Recognition of the Taliban is not limited to a growing number of Pakistanis either. In the summer of 2013 the government of Qatar agreed to let the Taliban open an office in Doha. This office is complete with the Taliban flag flying high above its doors and signs proclaiming it to be representative office to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The concern with this is obvious. Rather than treating them as a terrorist group responsible for the Afghan insurgency, the Qatari government is essentially acknowledging the Taliban’s legitimate claim to Afghanistan. This acknowledgement could do irreparable damage to the US backed government in Afghanistan and help to legitimize the Taliban struggle internationally.
Ramifications of increased Taliban influence in Pakistan
Should the TTP gain enough influence in the Pakistani government it could spell disaster for US operations in the GWOT and specifically in operational capacity throughout the Afghan and Asian theater. Pakistan has been an ally to the US in the sense that they allow us to conduct some operations along and across their borders. They are also recipients of billions of dollars in US aid meant to combat extremism within their own nation. As the US continues to draw down its forces in Afghanistan other questions have emerged: what role will Pakistan play in the Afghan theater and what is the military to do with the thousands of tons of supplies and equipment left in the country?
As we are now seeing in Iraq, the void created by a vacating US military could potentially leave significant assets to an enemy should they take the fight to a weakened post-US government. Pakistan and Afghanistan haven’t enjoyed the warmest of relationships since the toppling of the Taliban. Should the Taliban in Pakistan gain enough power and influence over the Pakistani government it is conceivable that their support for the Afghan Taliban will increase. With such support from the Pakistanis, the Afghan Taliban will be a serious threat to the stability of the fledgling and relatively weak central Afghan government.
A Taliban-controlled Pakistan could also spell disaster for regional stability. Pakistan is suspected of having hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons. Should the Pakistani military and the ISI ultimately back a coup in the country, and the TTP come to further prominence, the risk of these tactical nuclear weapons falling into Taliban hands is unacceptable. Many have speculated that the US has a contingency plan for dealing with such a threat, however top defense officials have denied such a plan exists and said that these reports are oversimplified.
A nuclear Taliban would most likely result in instant conflict. It is highly unlikely that India, Pakistan’s biggest foe in the region and a nuclear power itself, would allow such an eventuality. The ISI is suspected of supporting terrorist actions in the disputed Kashmir region of India and Taliban influence over the ISI could increase such support and lead to further escalations. To add insult to injury, Pakistan receives significant aid from China. This aid is often viewed as an annoyance to India since China and India do not have the warmest of relationships either. Furthermore, in 2013 Pakistan handed over control of the Gwadar port to the Chinese Navy. The port is a significant strategic asset to the region. Commerce flows in and out of the port annually. Control of the port by China could also mean hosting of significant Chinese military assets in the region.
In any event, Taliban influence or control of the Pakistani government is an eventuality that all interested parties should be wary of. Pakistan’s potential to meddle in the affairs of post-US Afghanistan, possession of nuclear weapons, poor nuclear security and relationships with international players that are not friendly to Western interests could destabilize an already fragile region. The vacuum created by vacating US forces could be filled by any number of unfavorable regimes from the Afghan Taliban to the Chinese. In any event, destabilization of the region would mean significant injury to US economic and strategic interests.