Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict on US in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Noorullah Shirzada

In a strategic shift, Pakistan’s security establishment appears to see more geopolitical upside to an inclusive rather than Taliban-dominated Afghan government in Kabul when US troops fully withdraw by September 11.

That marks a distinct flip of Pakistan’s previous position in favor of a Taliban total win over Kabul, one that violently ousts President Ashraf Ghani’s government and establishes a new Islamic emirate to the exclusion of non-Taliban and non-Pashtun groups.  

Like the Taliban, Pakistan authorities are known to view dimly Ghani’s elected government, both as a US-backed puppet regime and one that is dangerously close to rival India.  

Islamabad’s shift became apparent a fortnight ago when the security establishment renewed its efforts to push the Taliban to rejoin peace talks with Ghani’s government. Informed sources say the Taliban was told in clear terms that not doing so could invite “tough action” from Pakistan.

In a meeting between Pakistan’s top security officials and Afghan Taliban representatives on April 28 in Istanbul, Turkey, the latter was reportedly given an “enough is enough” message, with Pakistan emphasizing that the Taliban’s seizure of power through the sheer use of force and violence would not be viable.

The meeting and its messaging were reported widely in Pakistani media and subsequently not denied by either side. The Taliban has ramped up attacks as the US begins its withdrawal from government installations in the country, raising fears it plans to rout national forces and ignore any settlement reached via multi-party talks.

While pushing the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan is also quickly redefining its relations with Kabul. Importantly, Pakistan’s recalibration is being led by the military establishment, which since the 1980s has been the main player in Afghanistan’s long-running civil wars.

Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, shown before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Led by Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan’s top brass has since 2018 conducted its own independent brand of “military diplomacy” under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s hybrid civil-military regime.  

On May 10, Bajwa traveled to Kabul where he met Ghani and assured him of Pakistan’s support for an inclusive political system in Afghanistan after the US withdraws the last of its troops in September.

On May 12, Ghani made an unusual public statement claiming that Pakistan is no longer in favor of helping to re-establish a Taliban-led Islamic emirate, as existed under its hard-line rule between 1996 and 2001.

“Pakistan’s army, in utter clarity, announced that the revival of Islamic emirate is not in Pakistan’s national interest,” Ghani said in a televised speech after Eid Al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan.

While Ghani’s remarks have not been refuted by Islamabad or Pakistan’s top brass, it is not yet official, publicly announced policy. But Pakistan clearly has its own compelling reasons to shift its previous course vis-à-vis the Taliban and Ghani.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gestures as he speaks during the first day of the Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, at the Loya Jirga Hall in Kabul, August 2020. Photo: Press Office of President of Afghanistan / AFP

For one, many in Pakistan’s security establishment believe that a total Taliban victory would galvanize Pakistan-based, Taliban-aligned groups to pursue similar objectives through military means, potentially leading to new instability including in traditional hotbed areas along the Afghan border.

Security officials quoted in Pakistani media reports have recently said that the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan-based Taliban groups are “two faces of the same coin.”

While the Afghan Taliban deny any direct linkage with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of radical groups active on the border and affiliated with al-Qaeda, recent terror attacks in Pakistan have sparked fears of an Islamic militancy revival.

On April 22, only days before Pakistani officials’ meeting with the Taliban in Istanbul, a car-bomb attack on a five-star hotel in Quetta killed at least four and injured 15 others. In another attack on April 29, the day after the same meeting, another motorcycle bomb attack hit Quetta, killing a policeman and injuring several others.

While TTP claimed both attacks, it is important to note that Chinese interests were likely targeted in the April 22 attack.

Reports of the presence of China’s ambassador in the hotel were quickly denied by Pakistani officials, but China’s state media reported that the militant group involved in the attack may have wanted to create a bigger noise by targeting Chinese officials.

For years, Pakistan’s security establishment has maintained that the TTP has deep linkages with both Kabul and New Delhi.

The TTP’s revival in Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban were based for years after the US invasion (known as the “Quetta Shura”), represents a major security headache for Islamabad at a time China seeks to build infrastructure in the volatile region, including at the Gwadar port.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters on the march in Afghanistan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

That potent threat, some suggest, is driving Pakistan to redefine its relations with Kabul and rethink its post-US troop withdrawal position in Afghanistan. 

By leveraging its influence over the Taliban, Pakistan appears to be bargaining with Kabul to sever its support for groups like the TTP and ideally also uproot India’s presence in Afghanistan, where it allegedly supports anti-Pakistan militant groups that target Pakistani and Chinese interests in Balochistan province. New Delhi has denied the allegations.

Pakistan’s apparent new emphasis on an “inclusive” system in Afghanistan also dovetails with China’s position on US withdrawal and the imperative of establishing peace through an internally agreed political settlement. In a surprising public statement, China’s foreign ministry recently chided the US for making what it sees as an overly hasty Afghan retreat.

Beijing is wary of the civil war scenarios in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, including the potential for militant activity to spill over into China’s sensitive Xinjiang province, where it stands accused of persecuting the region’s ethnic Uighur Muslim minority in “vocational” camps.

Despite disputes over debts and stalled building on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion spoke in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan still highly values its relations with China.

The last thing Islamabad wants is for post-withdrawal chaos in Afghanistan to jeopardize both the CPEC and broader BRI in the region. China has reportedly dangled big-ticket BRI-related investments over the Taliban; it’s not clear how the Taliban has responded.

At the same time, Pakistan seems also to be trying to communicate with the US by delivering an “enough is enough” message to the Taliban. So far, the Biden administration has failed to engage with Khan’s government, which Washington likely views as too close to China.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Joe Biden have no plans to meet at present. Image: Twitter

As such, Islamabad’s overt support for a total Taliban victory could further undermine its political and economic ties with Washington. The US, not China, is Pakistan’s top export destination, with total shipments to the US growing an impressive 14.8% during the first three quarters of the 2020-21 financial year.

Moreover, Pakistan’s access to International Monetary Fund (IMF) financial assistance is known to be closely tied to how Washington views Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s conflict.

While Pakistan has clearly not renounced its long-time support for the Taliban, it is now repositioning itself in Afghanistan in ways that aim to better balance between the US and China while at the same time pushing to diminish and ideally purge India’s influence.