Afghan Taliban and Pakistan: From allies to adversaries

And the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, began supporting elements of the Islamic State Khorasan group in Afghanistan in carrying out attacks against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Afghan Taliban had to do something not only to see off the new Pakistani challenge but also to unite the broken country behind it. So, it re-established its links with the Pakistani Taliban in carrying out attacks within Pakistan and also increased the level of hostility along the Durand Line.

Dr Anirban Sen Feb 05, 2023
Afghan Taliban and Pakistan (Photo: Twitter)

On 15th August 2021, when the 20 years of US-led war in Afghanistan came to an end and the Taliban came back to power in the Afghan capital of Kabul, the Pakistani establishment thought that they had achieved a major strategic victory. It was the hope in Islamabad that the long-held objective of getting “strategic depth” in Afghanistan would be obtained for a second time since the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It was for this very reason that the Pakistanis supported the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan when the US and other Western forces were present in the country.

The main goal in all this was to curtail the influence of Pakistan’s regional rival India in Afghanistan. The post-2001 Afghan government had built close ties with New Delhi. This was seen as a serious threat by the military and the ISI intelligence agency in Pakistan. It was feared that Pakistan would increasingly face a double pincer movement from its eastern and western borders which have been the perennial fear of the Pakistani authorities since the time of the formation of the country. At this time the Taliban were considered to be pliant clients who would do Islamabad’s bidding once they came to power just as they had done the first time around. They were seen as a bulwark against Pashtun nationalism which has threatened Pakistan’s integrity in the past. Because of the huge amount of support that has been provided by the Pakistani security establishment to the Taliban for such a long period of time, it was hoped that they would remain eternally grateful to Islamabad forever.

There was also the belief that being Islamic fundamentalists the Taliban would never be able to side with India. In all this strategizing there was a fundamental flaw. First, this is not the same Taliban as the one that existed from 1996 to 2001. Today the Taliban having fought a twenty years insurgency against Western forces and with a large number of Western arms and equipment at their disposal are far less dependent on Pakistan than they were the first time around. Even Taliban 1.0 could not openly declare itself to be a Pakistani proxy due to the strong Afghan aversion to foreign domination from any other country. 

Second, while being hardline Muslims the Taliban are also committed to Pashtuns. So, when it is a question of supporting their Pashtun brethren and Pashtun causes against their eastern neighbor there is no question on which side the Taliban will choose. This was the case from 1996 to 2001 as well when they did not recognize the Durand Line as the officially demarcated border between Afghanistan and Pakistan which had been recognized by no Afghan government previously and no Afghan government since. Many in the Taliban also consider the Pakistanis to be impure Muslims and so have an added incentive to move against Islamabad.

The Durand Line divided Pashtuns

The Pashtuns are an ethnic group that is present on both sides of the Afghan- Pakistan border which is known as the Durand Line. Furthermore, they are divided into a large number of tribes. Because of the presence of this Pashtun population on both sides of this border, it has been extremely difficult to control the flow of goods and people through this border throughout history. On other hand, this has also allowed the easy movement of insurgents, arms and drugs through this very border. This dichotomy has never been resolved.

The border is very long and circuitous in nature and this makes monitoring it very difficult. And this border has been the main source of the acrimonious relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1947.

The origins of the demarcation of this border are also highly controversial. Originally there was no border and the whole area was considered as one. But when Afghanistan became wedged between the growth of the rival British and Russian empires during what is known as the "Great Game", things began to change. The Russian Empire started to encroach upon Afghanistan from the north, while the British Empire came up from the south. Finally, Afghanistan emerged as a buffer state between these two empires. 

The British wanted guarantees that the Russians would not use Afghanistan as a staging ground for carrying out an invasion of their Indian Empire. It was in this context that the Durand Line was drawn between the then Kingdom of Afghanistan and the British Empire. The Afghan government had little choice but to accept this decision as it was the geo-politically weaker power and the Pashtun population on both sides of the border was also nowhere consulted.

A poisoned relationship

Despite all this border was accepted by all sides concerned at the time. The Afghans never officially withdrew their claims to the Pashtun lands across the border but just waited for their time to find out a more opportune moment. That moment arrived when the British decided to carry out their complete withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947. A divided Afghanistan’s eastern part was handed over to the newly independent Muslim state of Pakistan.

From the Afghan perspective the obligations under the treaty on the basis of which the Durand Line was drawn were null and void with the dissolution of the British Empire. This however was not the Pakistani perspective. The Pakistanis feared that if they encouraged Pashtun nationalism within their borders then it could also be a signal to the other ethnic groups in Pakistan to ask for their autonomy and thus break up the nascent state before it had even begun. So, they rejected calls for even an autonomous Pashtunistan. Over the years this poisoned relationship between the two sides which has continued up to the present.

Many analysts look at the connections between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban as something of a novelty. But this is not the case. There have always been connections between Pashtun groups on both sides of the border. In earlier times the prevailing ideology was Pashtun nationalism. The aim was to negate the Islamic ideology of Pakistan which claimed that the Pashtuns were just one more ethnic group of Pakistan. For the Pashtun nationalists, Pakistan was a creation of the colonial powers which sought to keep the Pashtuns separate from their homeland even after they left. And they received wholehearted support from the Afghan governments for a long time. 

This behaviour obviously cooled Pakistani attitudes towards Afghanistan right from the beginning. Islamabad was always looking for an opportunity to pay back the Afghans in their own coin. It got its opportunity in the 1970s when Daud Khan overthrew the Afghan monarchy and took absolute power in a bloodless coup. But this attempt at covert warfare by the Pakistanis failed to overthrow the Afghan regime.

However, links were established with Afghan Islamists which proved to be useful when the Afghan Communists came to power and finally when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  Also, this Pakistani sponsorship of the Afghan Islamist insurgency forced Daud Khan’s hand as he sought to move his regime away from the Soviet Union. So, at last, he was forced to give up his support for Pashtunistan to establish good relations with Pakistan and gain the assistance of regional Muslim heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The birth of Pakistan Taliban

After this Pashtun nationalist ideology started to whither away especially after the Red Army occupied Afghanistan and the anti-Soviet jihad began. Islamism became the new ideological selling point. The origins of the Taliban lie in the Afghan refugees during this period who received their education in Pakistani madrasas which belonged to the Deobandi school of thought. These indoctrinated religious students (talibs) later became the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban were the first to capture power when after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the country descended into civil war. 

Out of the chaos of this civil war, the Taliban brought to order when they took control. This was possible through the enactment of their harsh version of Islamic law. Islamist organizations in Pakistan took inspiration from the Afghan Taliban at the time. But a separate Pakistani Taliban did not yet exist. That was to happen only once the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown by an invasion led by the United States.

As the Taliban insurgency against US-led forces in Afghanistan began to develop the insurgents sought refuge in the tribal lands bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here they began to develop linkages with local extremists. When the Pakistan Army decided to launch an operation in these tribal areas to root out these extremists they hit back. It was at this point that these people began to call themselves the Pakistani Taliban. While fighting continued in Afghanistan the Afghan Taliban did not openly show their support for the Pakistani Taliban as they still needed assistance from the Pakistani intelligence agencies. As a result, when the challenge from the Pakistani Taliban was finally overcome by the Pakistani Army, there was no reaction from the Afghan Taliban.

Volatile situation 

When the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan the situation changed. They started facing huge international pressure. The country’s finances are in ruins. And the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, began supporting elements of the Islamic State Khorasan group in Afghanistan in carrying out attacks against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Afghan Taliban had to do something not only to see off the new Pakistani challenge but also to unite the broken country behind it. So it re-established its links with the Pakistani Taliban in carrying out attacks within Pakistan and also increased the level of hostility along the Durand Line.

It remains to be seen how the current tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan play out. But one thing is for certain. The world cannot remain indifferent if any actual hostilities start. Both countries are in extremely vulnerable situations now with Pakistan going through economic and political instability. Any conflict will put even more economic pressure on the Afghan population and increase the flow of the Afghan refugee crisis much more than it is now. This will affect not only the region but also Western Europe and the wider world. 

With the Russia-Ukraine conflict already creating global disruption the world cannot afford to have another major conflict on its doorstep. Hence, every step needs to be taken by the international community to maintain regional stability by ensuring that the situation remains stable along the Durand Line.

(The writer is a Ph.D. Scholar, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be reached at 

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