In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban

On November 8, in an unprecedented press conference, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar offered a blistering critique of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He announced that the Taliban leadership was supporting the anti-Pakistan insurgency of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and that had contributed to a major increase in violence in Pakistan — leading to 2,867 Pakistani fatalities since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Over the last two years, the Pakistani government had been careful in its characterization of Taliban-TTP ties despite evidence of the Taliban’s support to the TTP, popularly known as the Pakistani Taliban, through provision of a safe haven and other forms of material assistance. This time, Kakar broke from that diplomatic hedging, saying “in a few instances” there was “clear evidence of [the Taliban] enabling terrorism” by the TTP. A few days after Kakar spoke, Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, followed up on Kakar’s critique of the Taliban, noting that “peace in Afghanistan, in fact, has become a nightmare for Pakistan.”
While Kakar is Pakistan’s “caretaker” prime minister until the country goes through an election (now rescheduled for early next year), he is believed to be close to Pakistan’s military. His statement also comes on the heels of Pakistan’s controversial decision to expel 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees from Pakistan — with over 327,000 refugees having already been forced to return to Afghanistan since the expulsion decision was announced. It was also preceded by significant attacks by the TTP, including an audacious attempt at the land grab of a border district in northern Pakistan. Thus, Kakar’s statement and its timing are significant. It indicates not just his views as the interim leader of the country but also the latest policy turn led by the military that Pakistan has had enough of the Taliban’s support for the TTP and wants to pressure the Taliban, at least until they revisit support for the TTP.

Under the new policy, Pakistan has set in place a broader pressure campaign to coerce the Taliban into reviewing and revoking its support for the TTP. Pakistan shares a long border with landlocked Afghanistan; it also supported and provided safe haven to the Taliban for nearly 20 years, all of which gives it unique leverage over the politics of Afghanistan. The main step to that end is Pakistan’s expulsion of refugees, which Kakar admitted is meant to pressure the Taliban. The other significant step Pakistan has taken is the scaling backing of economic and trade ties to impose economic pain on the Taliban. Pakistan has also announced that it will “not advocate the Afghan Taliban’s case at the international level,” which likely means Pakistan will not advocate for the formal recognition of the Taliban-led government and downgrade engagement with the Taliban as it has consistently done since August 2021.

The Taliban’s support for the TTP and Pakistan’s emerging pressure campaign sets the Taliban-Pakistan relationship on a path of long-term deterioration.

Taliban’s Calculus on the TTP and Pakistan

The Taliban leadership has deflected on Pakistani concerns on the TTP, calling it Pakistan’s internal problem. They have instead focused on the Pakistani decision to expel Afghan refugees — in recent weeks, they have broken from relative restraint in their public posture on Pakistan. This has ranged from a statement by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, expressing concern over the treatment of Afghan refugees to Taliban Prime Minister Hassan Akhund calling on Pakistan’s government and “military generals” to adhere to “Islamic principles.” Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqub has warned Pakistan that it should be mindful of the “consequences” of its decisions and that it will reap what it is sowing. Most significantly, Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani — a longstanding ally of Pakistan — has also condemned Pakistan, describing its decision to expel refugees as “unIslamic.”

These statements by Taliban leaders partly reflect the depth of anger among Afghans and within the Taliban over Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghan refugees. Taliban leaders also seem frustrated at Pakistan’s mounting pressure on them and unwillingness to negotiate with and make concessions to the TTP, in particular since the breakdown in Taliban-brokered talks between the TTP and Pakistan in late 2022. Yet the convergence of leaders representing different factions and groups within the Taliban on this issue is also instructive on Taliban internal politics, suggesting that they may be increasingly on the same page when it comes to Pakistan.

Since their return to power in 2021, as argued by USIP senior expert Andrew Watkins, the Taliban have indicated two distinct impulses: jihadism versus state-building. The jihadist camp champions the cause of foreign fighters. To that end, it seeks to not only protect them inside Afghanistan but also to support their jihadist campaigns. The state-builders have appeared more inward-focused, seeking to limit the activities of foreign fighters to improve relations with regional and Western countries for the end goal of stabilizing the country and economy. The push and pull between these two factions contributed to the Taliban’s dual policy over the last two years of supporting the TTP inside Afghanistan on the one hand and assurance to Pakistan on the other.

Over the last year, Taliban leaders with state-building instincts appear to have soured on Pakistan and see Pakistan’s refugee expulsion as a conspiracy to undermine the Taliban government. There are other grievances among state-builders toward Pakistan, including unmet expectations on economic and trade issues as well as questions about the level of autonomy of a Taliban-led government that Pakistan is willing to accept. Some are suggesting that Pakistan is bent on weakening the Taliban to keep them pliant. There is a possibility that the Taliban state-builders may be advocating use of hard-power leverage, perhaps through violence of the TTP, to counter Pakistan’s purported attempts to weaken them and realize their state-building agenda. If so, the divide between state-building and jihadism-inclined factions on the level of support for the TTP may be shrinking.

Still, some Taliban leaders with a state-building bent will be nervous about a hostile relationship with Pakistan. Irrespective of their public posturing, they are aware that Pakistan has made the more significant contribution to the downfall of multiple Afghan governments over the last four decades. Even if pragmatic leaders are overcome with anger for now, they will worry about the future of their regime if Pakistan remains opposed to them — and may adjust their positions, even realign themselves politically if hostilities persist.

What Next? Pakistan’s Options and Likelihood of Success

Pakistan appears to be ready to sustain and increase economic pressure to compel the Taliban to review its support for the TTP. Pakistan’s economic leverage is rooted partly in being landlocked Afghanistan’s main artery of transit trade and Taliban-led Afghanistan’s main export market — accounting for over 50 percent of exports. Border crossings with Pakistan contribute more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s customs revenues, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the Taliban’s total revenues. Pakistan has already tightened rules for transit trade, imposed stringent bank guarantee requirements on Afghan traders for imports, expanded a list of goods Afghanistan can’t import via Pakistan and slapped a 10 percent duty (referred to as processing fees) on select commodities imported by Afghanistan. Pakistan has also slowed down the movement of Afghanistan-bound containers arriving at Pakistani ports, as per the Taliban. These measures will have some impact on Pakistan’s economy, but it is far less reliant on the Afghan economy — at one point Pakistan was importing a large volume of Afghan coal, but as international coal prices have dropped, Pakistan’s coal imports from Afghanistan have decreased. Thus, overall, Pakistan’s measures will put more significant pressure on an isolated Taliban regime by cutting into its revenues and trade volumes. Pakistan retains other tools, like closure or disruption of border crossings to dry out Taliban revenues, to exert more economic pain.

If economic pressure fails, an escalatory step, which Pakistan’s military hinted at recently, can be a cross-border military action striking leaders and camps of the TTP in Afghanistan. The outcome of such an action is not clear. There is deep anger in Afghanistan toward Pakistan. Pakistani military action may increase support for the TTP in Afghanistan and also trigger retaliatory violence. Yet it is possible that cross-border action forces the Taliban to revisit its position, at least tactically. There is a precedent for this. In April 2022, Pakistan carried out cross-border airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan, soon after which the TTP, presumably at the insistence of the Taliban, agreed to a cease-fire against Pakistan.

Another more escalatory option for Pakistan is to support opposition to the Taliban, but it is not clear if Pakistan can work with the Taliban’s fragmented opposition. The opposition, dominated by political and military leaders of the former Afghan republic, has a history of poor ties with Pakistan, partly due to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban during the years of the insurgency. Pakistan has also struggled to forge ties with non-Pashtun political leaders — who are a key part of the Taliban’s opposition. Nevertheless, the region has seen strange bedfellow alliances emerge before — and the opposition is paying attention to the deterioration in Taliban-Pakistan ties and may be positioning to improve relations with Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan has helped forge opposition coalitions to balance against the government in Kabul in the past — and given its geographic position, arguably, can be effective at it.

Taliban’s Options and Likelihood of Success

The Taliban have some options of their own in a bid to blunt Pakistan’s pressure campaign and compel Pakistan to make political space for the TTP.  For one, the Taliban can seek to improve ties with neighbors in Central Asia and Iran to weather economic pain and Pakistani coercion. The Taliban have already reached out to Iran recently — with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar making a trip seeking more port access and trade concessions from Iran. Iranian access may help cushion the blow of losses from restricted transit trade with Pakistan, but it is unclear if it can be a full replacement.

The Taliban may also seek to backchannel with Pakistan. In the past, amid moments of tension with Pakistan, the Taliban have leaned on sympathetic Pakistani officials to de-escalate tensions. It is possible that some Taliban leaders (such as those from the state-building camp) may seek such help again. There are a handful of international actors as well who the Taliban can ask for help to de-escalate. The country best positioned and most accessible to the Taliban to play the role of a third-party mediator is Qatar, but it is unclear if the Qatari government, currently consumed by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, has the bandwidth or even interest to mediate Pakistan-Taliban tensions. China can also try to mediate, but it has security concerns of its own regarding Afghanistan-based terrorist groups and may share Pakistan’s perspective on the rising insecurity in Pakistan.

Another option for the Taliban is to seek a thaw in ties with the Western world in general and the United States in particular in a bid to open up bilateral trade and economic ties as well as gain multilateral assistance. Taliban actions that are most likely to create greater Western openness to normal ties are reversing the restrictions on girls’ education and on women’s employment, though lesser actions like allowing women to work for nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations may also open some doors. The Taliban can also look to play on Pakistani paranoia by increasing engagement with Pakistan’s archrival India and offering India more diplomatic access in the country in exchange for economic assistance.

Perhaps the most obvious option on the table which the Taliban may believe gives them sufficient leverage is violence against Pakistan through proxies — a variant of a military strategy referred to as “escalate to de-escalate.” The Taliban may be drawn to it due to their successful violence-driven bargaining with the United States as an insurgency as well as Pakistan’s ongoing economic downturn and domestic political turmoil. For this purpose, the Taliban can relax limits on actions and activities of various militant allies against Pakistan. If so, the TTP will be the key ally for the Taliban — directly and through its cover organization which undertakes complex militant attacks, the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan. The Taliban can also turn to other militant factions in Afghanistan with ongoing activity or a history of violence in Pakistan, such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent, Hafiz Gul Bahadur group and Lashkar-e-Islam. The Taliban are also providing haven to separatist Baloch insurgents, which plausibly gives the Taliban leverage over parts of Pakistan with significant Chinese interests.

Still, violence may not lead to the change the Taliban want to see in Pakistan’s behavior. As there is no Pakistani domestic political constituency calling for negotiations with the TTP, it is unlikely more attacks, even if they bring additional economic cost, will create pressure on Pakistani military leadership to revive negotiations with TTP. If anything, it may spur Pakistan into exerting more pressure on the Taliban.

Implications for U.S. Policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan

In an unusual turn of events, Pakistan has come to oppose the Taliban in a way that U.S. policymakers worked for two decades of the U.S. war in Afghanistan to bring about but ultimately failed. Taliban-Pakistan tensions will create feelings of schadenfreude within the U.S. policy community, but also challenge long-standing policy models and assumptions on how the United States should deal with both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the near term, there are three main implications for U.S. interests regarding Pakistan’s pressure campaign against the Taliban and the Taliban’s hardening on support for the TTP.

On the one hand, the shift in Pakistan’s policy improves the United States’ position to press the Taliban on issues of concern, such as human rights, political inclusion and perhaps even counterterrorism. A pressured Taliban regime’s pragmatic elements will see greater value in economic and assistance opportunities through the Western world — and that may create incentives for some Taliban leaders to offset Pakistan’s pressure by reconsidering U.S. demands and taking them up with hardliners in the movement, like Akhundzada. U.S. policymakers can leverage the Pakistani pressure to explore what the new trade space on human rights, political inclusion and counterterrorism looks like with the Taliban. If policymakers believe more pressure can lead to holistic change in the Taliban’s behavior, including that of hardline Taliban leaders, they can coordinate with Pakistan to amplify the pressure, though policymakers will be skeptical of a long-term convergence of interests with Pakistan over Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the Taliban’s strong support for the TTP despite Pakistan’s pressure suggests that the TTP’s threat to Pakistan will continue to grow, even metastasize. Not only does that raise concerns about risks to U.S. interests due to the TTP’s growing violence in Pakistan, for example by adding to Pakistan’s fragility and nuclear security concerns, but it is also instructive on how enduring the Taliban’s support for jihadist groups ultimately is. This points to the need for beefing up the U.S. counterterrorism posture in the region.

At the same time, a competing priority for the Biden administration is mitigating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Some policymakers may worry that Pakistan’s decision to put economic pressure on the Taliban, especially at a time when international humanitarian assistance is going down, will disturb the already precarious equilibrium of the Afghan economy and aggravate the humanitarian situation — and they may seek to defuse Pakistan-Taliban tensions to save the Afghan economy. However, chances of the United States changing Pakistan’s mind on the pressure campaign are slim.

Beyond the immediate implications, the growing tensions also pose longer-term questions about U.S. policy in the region should Pakistan sustain pressure against the Taliban. U.S. policymakers will need to reckon with the implications of a weakened Taliban regime, including increased risks of renewed conflict inside Afghanistan, and whether mitigating such risks is worth trying to limit Pakistani pressure at some stage. While these questions are somewhat distant for now, the trajectory of Taliban-Pakistan ties over the last two years and the history of Afghanistan suggests they may come up sooner rather than later.

In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban