An awkward dance: Pakistan’s fraught relationship with the Taliban

Pakistan updates

Young Taliban fighters wearing scruffy high-top sneakers and white headbands inscribed with Koranic verses patrol the dusty Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mountainous Khyber Pass.

The fighters, armed with rifles and whips, hopped off battered pick-up trucks decorated with garlands of plastic fuchsia and yellow flowers to shove people trying to cross the border back in line and away from the gate where they were pleading for entry.

White Taliban flags have marked the Afghanistan side of the strategic crossing since the day in early August when the Taliban arrived at 9am to take over the border post. Foreshadowing the bloodless collapse of Kabul, Pakistani officials said that the Afghan soldiers walked away without a fight.

But the relative calm at the crossing belies Islamabad’s fears that the Taliban takeover will trigger a flood of refugees and embolden extremist groups in the region, including those targeting Pakistan.

“Worries are there, the security situation is tentative,” said Sajid Majeed, a brigadier in the Pakistan military. “We have beefed up and taken additional reinforcement.”

The UN has warned that Afghanistan faces a “looming humanitarian catastrophe” and estimated that half a million Afghans could flee the country this year. Pakistan took in hundreds of thousands of refugees during the US war in Afghanistan and has requested international financial help to host more.

Analysts said that the fact that Pakistan had nearly completed construction of a metal fence running along its once unregulated 2,600km border with Afghanistan reflected tensions in Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban.

Since taking power, the Taliban has refused to denounce TPP, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or Pakistan Taliban, which claimed a suicide attack killing four soldiers in Quetta this week, and rejected the fence, which divides the two countries along the contested Durand Line drawn by British colonists.

Pakistan, which has been accused by the US and others of financing and supporting the Taliban, has repeatedly insisted its leverage over the Islamist movement is limited.

On a press trip for foreign journalists organised by Islamabad that included a visit to Torkham, Pakistan officials claimed that they were cut out of the US-Taliban exit deal. They said direct American negotiations with the Taliban undermined their influence.

“We’ve got a huge challenge on our hands,” said a senior Pakistani military official, who did not want to be named. “They [the Taliban] have not issued any statement as far as the TPP is concerned. TTP is a major concern.”

People wait to cross into Pakistan, at Spin Boldak, Afghanistan
Some refugees who were denied entry at Torkham travelled 800km to the Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing © EPA/Shutterstock

The official added that Isis-K, a splinter group of al-Qaeda that grew into a rival of the Taliban, was “not a coherent force” with less than 2,000 fighters but “if they are left alone, a lot of people will join”.

Far from condemning the TTP, the Taliban released hundreds of the group’s prisoners from Afghanistan’s jails as they swept through the country.

TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud, who is on the UN sanctions list for working with al-Qaeda, has vowed to attack Pakistan, while security analysts said TTP attacks had reached their highest level in four years.

Asfandyar Mir, a researcher affiliated with Stanford University, said Pakistan’s strategy of supporting the Taliban’s ascent in Kabul was a gamble. “Pakistan thinks it can cut the synergy between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban and manage both relationships independently,” said Mir.

“We shouldn’t write off the possibility that Pakistan can manage this awkward dance, but more likely there will be blowback. The Taliban will push back on Pakistan and violence will [rise].”

The refugees desperate to escape the Taliban and a slowing economy represent another complication for Pakistan.

“Government workers and teachers, they aren’t getting their salaries, they don’t have any other option other than fleeing to Pakistan,” said Abdul Sayed, a security researcher on radical militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan based in Sweden.

“If the situation in Afghanistan remains like the pre-9/11 Taliban era with no trade and the country is cut off, the people will flee.”

At Torkham, Pakistan has turned away refugees citing a lack of documentation and pandemic restrictions, forcing some to make the 800km journey south-west to the Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing.

Bibi Aisha Nooristani, a 27-year-old nurse who worked with a western aid organisation, fled Kabul after four Taliban fighters questioned her in her house.

“The Torkham gate is closed. We went there and came back by bus to Spin Boldak,” she said, “It’s too dangerous for me to stay in Kabul.”

Nooristani was with a handful of refugees standing outside a UN office in the quiet suburbs of Islamabad. Also part of the group was Baraat Ali, who had fled with his family from Kabul where he had run a truck business that held contracts with Nato forces.

“I was especially fearful because my truck used to be rented for Nato business and there were rumours that the Taliban would steal our daughters,” Ali said. “No one can predict the future.”

Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari

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