After jubilation, Pakistan faces dilemma as Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan inspires religious militants

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

In the two weeks since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, Pakistan’s typically fractious political voices joined in something rare: unison.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, applauded Afghans for tearing free of the “shackles of slavery.” His political opponents, including leaders of Islamist parties, congratulated the Taliban for its “historic victory” over American imperialism. A half-dozen retired Pakistani army generals publicly celebrated. So did extremist groups that are sworn enemies of Pakistan’s generals and government.

But beneath the widespread jubilation, Pakistan is beginning to reckon with the destabilizing effects washing across the Afghan border. The Taliban’s dramatic victory not only has galvanized terrorist groups waging a bloody insurgency inside Pakistan, but it has also buoyed hard-line religious parties that seek to reshape Pakistan in a more fundamentalist Islamist image.

The result, say analysts and current and former Pakistani and U.S. officials, is a renewed dilemma for a Pakistani military establishment that has sought since the late 1970s to strategically harness – but also carefully contain – the combustible rise of religious fervor in the country.

From a sprawling southern city to a northwestern seminary known for its ties to militant groups, conservative religious and political leaders were bullish about the Taliban’s return.

In a park in Karachi, Maulana Fazl-Ur Rehman, a political opposition leader who supports the Taliban but disavows violent struggle inside Pakistan, cited the Taliban victory as he called for an electoral “revolution” to oust Khan. On Thursday, an even more conservative politician, Maulana Hamid ul Haq – the son of a Sunni cleric known as the “father of the Taliban” – told his followers that the Taliban had established “unmatched peace and security in Afghanistan,” proved the shortcomings of democracy, and should inspire a similar “hard struggle to have a true Islamic system in Pakistan,” according to a statement distributed by Haq’s group.

Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, said the Taliban’s takeover in neighboring Afghanistan is already affecting Pakistan in far-reaching ways.

“With the Taliban taking over, anti-Pakistan terrorist groups will be emboldened, but it doesn’t end there,” Rana said. “There could be an emergence of a new war of narratives in the country, which will transform ongoing debates about state and society and the role that religion plays.”

Extremist and nonviolent groups alike, he added, “will think, ‘If Islamic rule could happen in Afghanistan, why can’t it happen here?’ ”

Pakistani officials say their most immediate concern is the resurgence of a coalition of militant groups known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, which is allied with the Afghan Taliban and has conducted nearly 1,800 attacks on Pakistani state and civilian targets in the past decade. After hailing the Taliban’s “blessed victory” in Afghanistan, the TTP claimed another attack last week in which gunmen crossed from Afghanistan and killed two soldiers in northern Pakistan’s tribal region.

A U.N. Security Council report in July estimated the TTP had 6,000 trained fighters on the Afghan side of the border. A June report said the Taliban and TTP have maintained their relationship. As it swept across Afghanistan last month, the Taliban released hundred of militants, including senior TTP leaders, from prisons.

Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Defense Committee, said Pakistan had laid down “red lines” to the Taliban to warn it against harboring the TTP. “There is caution because of the Taliban track record and their affinity with the sworn foes of Pakistan like the TTP,” Syed said. “There is also optimism that this time around, the Afghan Taliban are more chastened.”

A former high-ranking TTP commander, who spoke by messaging app on the condition of anonymity, said Pakistan has recently asked the Taliban to force TTP fighters to surrender their arms in exchange for amnesty.

The Taliban responded that it would not hand over TTP members but would pressure them to hold peace talks with the Pakistani government, the former TTP leader said, adding that the Taliban’s leverage was limited. “If the Afghan Taliban tried to force the TTP, then some of its commanders can join (Islamic State-Khorasan),” he said, referring to a rival militant group that claimed a bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed more than 170 people.

Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, traveled to Kabul on Saturday to discuss security and trade issues with Taliban leaders, according to Pakistani officials with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Hameed’s travel.

After withering under a years-long offensive by Pakistan’s army, the TTP regrouped in 2018 under a new leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, “who is now preparing for a comeback,” said Amira Jadoon, a counterterrorism expert at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the group’s recent propaganda, Mehsud has portrayed the outfit as something mirroring the victorious Taliban – nationalists trying to oust a corrupt government.

“They see the Afghan Taliban as a pathway they can adopt,” Jadoon said.

Beyond the militant fringe, observers say, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan also adds a volatile element to the mainstream politics playing out on Pakistan’s streets.

Since the country veered toward a more Islamist tack in the 1980s under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew the leftist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a coup, it has repeatedly witnessed the growing power – and destabilizing potential – of ultraconservative religious parties.

In recent years, these groups have clashed with the government to demand harsher punishment for alleged cases of blasphemy, or for the adoption of Islamic legal codes. Although these groups eschew elections, they effectively pressure the government by drawing throngs of supporters out of seminaries and onto the streets, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a researcher at the University of London’s SOAS South Asia Institute.

“The government will be under greater pressure to make the state more sharia-compliant, if Taliban next door are doing that,” she said.

Shortly after Khan’s 2018 election, an ultrareligious group called Tehreek-i-Labaik (TLP) fought police and rocked Pakistan’s cities after a Christian woman was acquitted in a blasphemy case. Protesters again rioted over French President Emmanuel Macron’s eulogizing of a French teacher who was beheaded by a radical Islamist. In April, Khan banned the TLP and arrested its leader, sparking yet another wave of unrest before the military stepped in behind the scenes.

Khan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Pakistan’s generals are frequently accused of covertly cultivating radical Islamists for their foreign policy objectives, particularly against India – a charge they deny. But they have also voiced unease about the trend of deepening religious sentiment at home.

The army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, said in 2017 that there were more than 2 million students in madrassas, or religious schools, and that many were not getting a “worldly” education.

“So what will they become: Will they become (clerics) or they will become terrorists?” Bajwa said in a speech. “We need to look and revisit the concept of madrassas.”

In meetings with U.S. counterparts, Pakistani security officials expressed concerns about mounting religious zeal, particularly during episodes of unrest over blasphemy cases, said Douglas London, a former head of counterterrorism in South and Southwest Asia at the CIA who met frequently with Pakistani military and intelligence officials before retiring in 2019.

London described meetings in which ISI officials, when provided with U.S. intelligence, were reluctant to crack down on certain religious leaders or schools out of fear of being outnumbered in a violent showdown.

“There were madrassas they wouldn’t go near,” said London, who has written an upcoming memoir about his career, titled “The Recruiter.” “Now imagine that escalating into a national movement against them,” he said. “The rise of extremism in their country that they’ve ridden and sailed on are now a real threat to them.”

Talat Massood, a retired Pakistani army general, acknowledged anxieties that a new government in Kabul might lead to a “Talibanization” of Pakistani society. But those fears were overblown, he said, for a simple reason: Pakistan has always exerted a greater pull over Afghanistan.

“The fact remains, it’s not two-way traffic in terms of influence,” he said. “It’s one-way traffic.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here