The “Proxy” Dilemma and the Taliban

Pakistan-Taliban relations are deteriorating to the extent that one could even call it a fully-fledged crisis.

Pakistan-Taliban relations are deteriorating to the extent that one could even call it a fully-fledged crisis. With scathing statements from both sides, this is arguably the most significant political divide between the Islamist movement and the Rawalpindi military caste in decades. Because both sides depend on maintaining this alliance, this will likely disrupt stability in the region further. The political vector and, conceivably, the fate of the unrecognized Emirate, among other things, will largely depend upon how this issue is resolved.

The decline in relations between Pakistan and the Taliban began two years after the regeneration of the Islamic Emirate. When the United States army and NATO forces left Afghan land hastily and unsystematically, the Republic fell, and the Taliban took everything they could. Pakistan’s role was among the most important or even decisive in this case. The military, jointly with ISIs, completed a successful operation, planning, providing general strategic support, and advising the Taliban. The centerpiece was the last summer offensive against significant cities and the entry into Kabul. The Haqqani Network, a close Pakistani ally and a part of the Taliban, was the first force to enter the capital and provide a forcible transfer of power. The culmination of the victory was the visit of ISI chief Faiz Hameed to the restored Emirate in early September, where, according to the media, he said, “Everything will be okay.” After this event, the Pakistani military and the Taliban stopped hiding their links. Сontacts between parties have always been frequent but reasonably secret.

The history of the Taliban creation and the role of the Pakistani military in this process is well–known and described in detail in academic literature and journalism. Moreover, after years, the Pakistani military, the Taliban, American diplomats and CIA agents, and many others have published thousands of interviews, articles, books, and memoirs where all these cases were conveyed. Look at the memoirs of ex-President Pervez Musharaf. On the page 202 in his “In the Line of Fire. A Memoir” (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2006) he wrote:

“We were the only country maintaining diplomatic relations with the Taliban and their leader, Mullah Omar (p. 200). And this part, where a seasoned military and politician, who miraculously did not board the crashed Zia ul-Haq’s plane, asks quite deep matter questions: The ultimate question that confronted me was whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taliban. Were they worth committing suicide over? The answer was a resounding no. It is true that we had assisted in the rise of the Taliban after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, which was then callously abandoned by the United States. For a while, at the embryonic stage, even the United States had approved of the Taliban. We had hoped that the Taliban, driven by religious zeal based on the true principles of Islam, would bring unity and peace to a devastated country.”

Theoretically, strategic thinkers and practitioners have been aware of using proxies against adversaries for centuries. In the nuclear era, the practical application of both the “divide and conquer” principle and the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle has evolved particularly. This strategy has evolved as a means for superpowers to compete while avoiding direct military confrontations. During the era of bipolarity, it was also used to instigate and manage regional conflicts and civil wars in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Even after the Cold War ended, proxy wars did not diminish. This phenomenon has resurfaced in the twenty-first century.

I will not speak of the genesis and evolution of the initially rural and Kandahar Pashtuns Matter movement, which later became (mainly through the Pakistani military) a powerful political force on a national, regional, and even global scale. This is well aware. Now, the question relies on a different plane. Power in politics comes with huge responsibilities, and when it is out of control, it becomes dangerous. Many historical facts exist about proxy forces gaining power, becoming less obedient, and entering into implicit and even explicit conflicts with their masters and curators. Often, such conflicts and contradictions end badly for proxy forces. Obviously, they have significantly fewer resources and power and usually do not have legitimacy, the official status of an international player. However, this has always been a headache for regional and great powers and saps resources and energy. This aspect is no less obstructive to new beginnings. Before starting new projects, strategists and world political players think about the control over their future wards first. This yardstick determines the decision to launch or not an undertaking.

The Taliban’s nature is a debatable matter. Barnett Rubin wrote that the organization was always relatively centralized and had no serious dividings within. Others believe that various factions within the movement are fighting for the predominance of their vision of the world and Afghanistan. Robert Crews, who occupies a middle position, seems right in his views. The scientist believes that “the Taliban are not exactly a monolith, but at key moments, particularly when faced with challenges, they have managed to close ranks to maintain a united front.”.

Anyway, if we agree that the Taliban is united enough, there are groups close to Islamabad and groups that separate from Pakistani strategists. The history of diplomacy often shows that this factor plays an essential role in reducing the ambitions of various proxies on the part of regional and great powers. They skillfully operate with divisions and splits (even the most minor ones), strengthening their dominant positions. The second tool of a particular postcolonial policy towards rebellious representatives is their suppression by force, but this is the least acceptable way. Often, it was utilized covertly and through other proxy groups or alternative clans within the organization. Economic and ideological impact and negotiations are the third and the most favorable and acceptable methods. This is what Pakistani politicians operate now. The decision to expel over a million Afghan citizens from Pakistan will be a real challenge to the deep-crisis economy.

Furthermore, there are specific signals about the eagerness to apply economic sanctions, which will affect the economy and trade balance of the unrecognized Emirate. Particular tightening in trade on the Pakistani side has already been imposed. Pakistani strategists are permanently working with Taliban leaders, introducing them to a unity of interests and identity based on Islamic values.

The most severe aspect of tension in relations is terrorism, namely Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Earlier, I wrote that the regeneration of the Emirate caused the activation of terrorist organizations in Pakistan. On the eve, acting prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar appealed to the Taliban to decide whether they would take action against terrorists using Afghan land or whether the Pakistani army would deal with them. In an interview with the Pakistani news channel Geo News, Kakar stated that the Taliban’s passivity about terrorist activities is unacceptable. According to a statistical report published by the independent analytical center of the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), terrorist activity in the country rose by 79% in the first half of 2023 due to militant attacks compared to the matching time last year. Pakistan blames the Taliban for this wave of terrorism and has repeatedly requested the IEA to stop cross-border attacks and the usage of Afghan land against a neighboring country. Yet, Kakar stated that although he is a Pashtun himself, his main role is to protect the well—being of Pakistan.

Also, on the eve, it was given out that Pakistani security forces had killed four armed soldiers, including a wanted man, near the border. According to a military news statement, Pakistani soldiers traded gunfire with the warriors during an “intelligence-based operation” in North Waziristan. North Waziristan served as a safe haven for fighters until the military expelled them following an attack on an army-run school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed more than 150 people, the majority of whom were students. The army voiced that it had released the region of fighters following a years-long campaign, but assaults continue occasionally, prompting fears that the local Taliban, known as the TTP, has taken sanctuary in Afghanistan and is rebuilding there.

The Taliban leadership has brushed aside Pakistani worries over the TTP, referring to it as a domestic issue. Instead, they have concentrated on Pakistan’s move to deport Afghan refugees. This has varied from the Taliban’s highest commander, Hibatullah Akhundzada, expressing worry about the plight of Afghan emigrant to Taliban Prime Minister Hassan Akhund urging Pakistan’s government and “military generals” to follow “Islamic principles.” Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqub has cautioned Pakistan to consider the “consequences” of its actions and that it would reap what it sows. Most notably, Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, a longtime Pakistani friend, has also slammed Pakistan, calling its move to evict refugees “unIslamic.”

In short, we see several critical processes. First, the Pakistani-Taliban conflict is increasing. It is uncertain what the implications will be. There is a possibility that the Pakistani military will still be able to find common ground with unmanageable customers. Some misunderstandings have already occurred. However, it was always possible to find understanding. At the same time, keep in mind that this occurred amid a formidable foreign enemy whose presence in the region and in Afghanistan no one desired. The Americans have left, and there are no external factors anymore. This may complicate settling to some extent, but it will not make it impossible. Both Pakistanis and Afghans are outstanding diplomats with centuries of experience in eastern bargaining.

Secondly, it becomes clear that the Taliban is developing as a more serious political actor. Saying that this movement is someone’s proxy would be a simplification. Like many other political groups that came to power by force and with foreign support, the Taliban is gradually becoming independent. Of course, it is crucial to bear in mind the Pakistani impact on the economy, trade, and many other aspects of the Afghan state. Asfandyar Mir notes that a significant factor behind Pakistan’s economic influence is its crucial role as a transit route for landlocked Afghanistan and as the primary destination, comprising more than half of its total exports. The border connections between Pakistan and Afghanistan generate over 40 percent of Afghanistan’s customs income, constituting nearly 60 percent of the Taliban’s overall revenue.

Thirdly, various factions within the Taliban jointly made anti-Pakistan statements. Remarkably, the Haqqani Network leaders, the closest to the ISI clan, consisting of militant eastern Pashtuns from the Zadran tribe, also did not stay away. I feel that this case suggests that the Taliban is evolving into an increasingly wealthy independent political institution. Despite the presence of various factions and competition between them, the Taliban still is a united front when it comes to an external threat. And Pakistanis, despite a shared prosperous past, will remain strangers to Afghan Pashtuns. On the other hand, the conflict’s history is far from over. It’s difficult to forecast what will happen next. Reconciliation of the parties could lead to the opposite outcome: consolidation of dependence. For the international system and regional security, it is not essential who affects the Taliban, but the following point is important.

I wrote that the nature, structure, and ideology of the Taliban do not intend that this force will combat the international terrorist network. Deep transformations of a system like the Taliban will lead to its erosion and destruction. Such structures are complicated in evolution, and their transformations are limited. The Taliban’s support for the TTP and neglect of the activity of other terrorist organizations on Afghan territory is a hard-to-oppose fact. There are still no clear ways to cope with this phenomenon.

Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatryan, associate professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.