Taliban fighters have taken large swathes of Afghanistan in the past two weeks. Photo: AFP / Aref Karimi

PESHAWAR – When a movie depicting the Taliban taking out a funeral procession in the Pakistani city of Peshawar recently went viral on social media, the Interior Ministry’s real-life acknowledgment of the Afghan Taliban’s presence in the country failed to make much of a stir.

In late June, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed revealed that the families of several Afghan Taliban militants live safely in Pakistani cities, including some in the capital Islamabad’s poshest districts.

However, a clearer picture of the Afghan Taliban’s presence emerged when local media, quoting Pakistani officials, confirmed that the bodies of militants killed in Afghanistan are now arriving in Pakistan, while wounded fighters are also receiving treatment in Pakistani hospitals in Balochistan province.

Pakistan had repeatedly denied allowing Taliban sanctuaries in its territory, with the official line being Islamabad supports an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned approach” to the war-torn country’s imbroglio. But President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government has nonetheless continued to blame Pakistan for taking sides in his country’s war.

In an interview this month with German magazine Der Spiegel, Ghani alleged that Islamabad operates an organized system of support for the Taliban insurgents, who he claimed receive logistics and financial support as well as assistance with fighter recruitment.

In particular, Ghani alleged that the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s security agencies work hand in glove, an assertion he backed with the names of Taliban decision-making bodies he said are now safely based in Pakistani cities including Quetta Shura, Miramshah Shura and Peshawar Shura.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gestures as he speaks. The leader has made some heated allegations against Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Noorullah Shirzada

On July 16, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused Pakistan of providing air back up to Taliban fighters in the strategic border region of Spin Boldak.

He tweeted: “Pakistan Air Force has issued an official warning to the Afghan Army and Air Force that any move to dislodge the Taliban from the Spin Boldak area will be faced and repelled by the Pakistan Air Force. Pakistan Air Force is now providing close air support to Taliban in certain areas.”

Pakistan immediately refuted Saleh’s allegations and countered with regret that the Ghani government did not recognize everything Islamabad has done to facilitate the peace process in Doha, which is now badly stalled while military battles have intensified amid America’s troop withdrawal.      

When the Taliban launched an offensive in late 2020, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations went into a tailspin as Kabul suspected the Taliban received tacit Pakistan support.

At the same time, Pakistan has long accused Kabul of harboring the anti-Pakistani group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and also the secessionist Balochistan Liberation Army, which is now waging a campaign against Chinese nationals and Beijing-funded projects in Pakistan.

More recent developments, including the alleged abduction, battering and release of the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan’s daughter last week in Islamabad, have poured more fuel on the bilateral fire.

In response to the alleged abduction, Afghanistan last week recalled its ambassador to Pakistan Najib Alikhil, saying that the ambassador and other envoys would not resume their diplomatic duties “until all the security threats are removed.”

Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming the ambassador’s daughter, Silsila Alikhil, was “severely tortured” before she was released and dumped near a garbage heap.

Afghan media did not rule out the role of Pakistan’s security agencies in the abduction and alleged torture, though no concrete evidence has been produced to corroborate the explosive allegation. The Associated Press, citing a medical report, reported she suffered from blows to her head, had rope marks on her wrists and legs and was badly beaten.

Afghanistan Ambassador to Pakistan Najib Alikhil and his daughter Silsila Alikhil after her alleged abduction and torture in Pakistan. Image: Twitter

Islamabad claimed that its investigations revealed that no abduction took place but rather that Indian and Afghan spy agencies had collaborated to undermine the efforts of Pakistan for bringing peace to Afghanistan.

“The Afghan ambassador’s daughter was not kidnapped, we have simply registered a case, as she in her written statement claimed to have been kidnapped,” Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said last week, rejecting Afghan claims that Silsila was abducted.

Pakistani authorities including Islamabad Inspector General of Police Qazi Jamilur Rehman are seemingly in a state of denial, saying that the “impression of abduction given by the diplomat’s daughter was not substantiated by the shreds of evidence collected by investigation agencies.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government labeled the incident a “conspiracy” and “hybrid warfare” aimed to malign its role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table.

Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf has claimed that the alleged abduction was “a part of an orchestrated campaign of which various fronts have been opened against Pakistan.”

Despite those official denials, Islamabad’s neutrality in Afghanistan’s conflict is very much in doubt with the growing revelations of the Taliban using Pakistan territory as a sanctuary for planning and fighting its war.

The Pakistan-Afghan border at Chaman, Balochistan, that links to Afghanistan’s Spin Boldak has been officially sealed after falling to the Taliban. However, media reported that more than 30 injured Taliban and two bodies were allowed last week by border staff to enter the town from Afghanistan for medical treatment. 

Afghan security forces start operations against the Taliban around Torkham border point between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on July 23, 2021. Photo AFP via Anadolu Agency / Stringer

Reports indicate that private hospitals in Balochistan province are now treating injured Afghan Taliban fighters. Videos and photographs of the Taliban being treated in the hospitals went viral on social media but authorities have not taken any action.

Kuchlak, a town near Quetta in Balochistan, has meanwhile become a recruiting center for the Afghan Taliban. A resident who declined to be identified told foreign media that not only do the Taliban have their bases in madrasas and seminaries in the Pakistani province, but they also “collect donations in the mosques.”

The resident said most of the people living in the town were Taliban sympathizers, believing that they were waging jihad for the establishment of “an Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban’s recent military gains have perked up Pakistan’s security establishment and religious hard-liners, who for decades supported the Taliban to create a bulwark against excessive involvement of Indian spy agencies in Afghanistan.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute think tank, opined in a recent Foreign Affairs article that Pakistan may get what it wished for with a Taliban victory but will soon come to regret it.

A Taliban takeover, he said, will leave Pakistan more vulnerable to extremism at home and potentially more isolated on the world stage, he wrote.

“For decades, Pakistan has played a risky game by supporting or tolerating the Taliban and also trying to stay in Washington’s good graces,” Haqqani wrote.

“It worked for longer than many might have expected, but it was never going to prove sustainable in the long term. Pakistan has managed to kick the can down the road for a long time. Soon, however, it will reach the end of the road.”