The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Pakistan might be having a few regrets about its support for the Taliban over the past two decades.

The Taliban is wielding Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP for short, a militant group, as a bargaining chip to obtain concessions from Pakistan and other regional powers. Active since 2007, the TTP has relentlessly pursued an insurgency against Pakistan’s government, aiming to replace it with its own version of Islamic law. Responsible for attacks on foreign targets, such as the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Khost, Afghanistan, and the attempted 2010 Times Square bombing, the TTP’s notoriety is clear.

The TTP shares close ideological and operational ties with the Afghan Taliban, aligning itself as a Pakistani extension of the movement. TTP leaders, under the influence of Afghan Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, benefit from the shelter, training, and support provided by the Afghan faction. Furthermore, the TTP collaborates with other extremists allied with the Taliban, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State – Khorasan Province.

After the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 2021, TTP attacks in Pakistan spiked, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, primarily security personnel. The Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research organization, reported more than 100 attacks by the TTP in 2022, leading to over 500 fatalities. Notably, the TTP has rescinded a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan’s government, brokered by the Afghan Taliban in 2021. The group now demands prisoner releases, troop withdrawals from tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the enforcement of Islamic law across Pakistan.

Despite pleas from Pakistan and other nations, the Taliban has failed to take action against the TTP, refused to extradite TTP members, and instead released many from Afghan prisons, granting them free reign in Afghanistan. They’ve urged Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP, suggesting political and territorial concessions.

Several factors motivate the Taliban’s position regarding the TTP. Primarily, maintaining internal cohesion and legitimacy among their own members, who share ideological and ethnic bonds with the TTP. Furthermore, they view the TTP as a pawn to extract concessions on issues such as recognition, aid, trade, and border security.

Among the concessions, the Taliban seeks diplomatic recognition from Pakistan and other nations as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. While Pakistan hasn’t formally recognized the Taliban regime, it maintains close ties and supports its participation in regional forums. Pakistan encourages other countries to engage with the Taliban and offer humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

Additionally, the Taliban is appealing for financial aid to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and economic downfall. Pakistan pledged $50 million in humanitarian aid, facilitated cross-border trade, and advocated for the unfreezing of Afghan assets held abroad and the resumption of international aid flows to Afghanistan.

The Taliban is seeking trade opportunities to boost Afghanistan’s moribund economy. Pakistan has reopened its border crossings, resumed bilateral trade following a brief hiatus post-Taliban takeover, and expressed interest in broadening trade relations with Afghanistan to access Central Asian markets.

Moreover, the Taliban is looking for border security cooperation to counter cross-border infiltration and smuggling. Pakistan has deployed additional troops along its border with Afghanistan, installed biometric systems, and proposed joint patrols to curb illegal activities.

The Taliban’s backing of the TTP poses significant challenges for Pakistan and its allies. Pakistan fears the TTP will destabilize its security and economy, diminish its regional influence, and endanger its nuclear assets. Moreover, Pakistan is concerned about the TTP’s links with other extremist groups, fearing cross-border attacks on India, China, Iran, and Central Asian states. In response, Pakistan has increased military operations against the TTP, sought diplomatic pressure on the Taliban, and explored alternative dialogue channels with the TTP.

Pakistan’s options, however, are hampered by its complicated relationship with the Afghan Taliban. While accused of strategically supporting the Taliban’s rise to power, Pakistan has also fallen victim to Taliban violence and extremism. Balancing interests and expectations between both sides has proven unsuccessful for Pakistan.

So, Pakistan faces a dilemma: to confront or appease the Taliban regarding the TTP. A confrontation could potentially escalate violence and instability, while accommodation could demand significant political and territorial concessions to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, potentially undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty and security. Neither option is palatable or straightforward for Pakistan.

Hamza Haider is a Research Analyst at the Institute of International Affairs in Poznan, Poland.