Taliban’s Return: Rude Awakening for Pakistan?

Photo Credit: The Dawn

By Imtiaz Gul

The Afghan Taliban regime announced late March to resumes public stoning and flogging for women accused of adultery. The elusive supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, through an audio message declared the government's plan to revert to a traditional interpretation of Sharia law, literal revival of heir 1996-style governance regime, contrary to what they had conveyed to the world through their talks with US in Doha leading up to the 2020 deal.

As expected, the latest moves drew both concern and criticism from all over.

"With this announcement, the Taliban leaders have initiated a new era of private punishments. Afghan women are facing profound isolation, while the international community seems to have chosen silence over confronting these rights violations,” said Safia Arefi, a lawyer and leader of the Afghan Women's Window of Hope organization.

Pain for Every One

Taliban’s intransigence on human and women’s rights puts not only the US and other Western allies but countries such as Pakistan in a state of limbo over how to engage with the Taliban. No Muslim country has either endorsed the Taliban's way of Islamic system. Yet it has not deterred them from tightening their grip on women and cracking down on civil society voices at large.

Initially Pakistan had welcomed the Taliban takeover in August 2021, not because of any military or ideological reasons but because of its economic-centric shift under the Chinese pressure so it could expand the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Pakistan also took several socio-economic CBMs to help the regime - food donations and lenient border regulations for trade as well as facilitation in contacts with regional countries, China in particular . But unusual surge in terrorist violence in 2024 meanwhile brought the bilateral relationship to a literal standstill since a Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TTP) incursion into Chitral in early September last year.

For Islamabad this amounted to the red line that the TTP - whose leaders presently shelter in Kabul and elsewhere - had crossed. It presented the evidence to Kabul and demanded conclusive action against the TTP terrorists.

As a whole, Pakistan recorded an eight-year high in TTP-driven terrorist violence in 2023.


Despite verbal commitments, the de facto rulers of Afghanistan refused to use force against the  TTP stating ideological affinity and their two-decade long association in “jihad” against the US-led forces during the republic years. Many regime ministers once again kicked up the contentious issue of the border - the British called it the Durand Line - which even US officials called as the internationally recognised border between the two countries.

“We support the territorial integrity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan within their internationally recognised borders,” said the department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller. The United States recognises the Durand Line as an international border, as do other major world powers, he underlined.

Abbas Stanakzai, Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, had said that the Taliban does not recognise the Durand Line as the official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, like the previous governments. In response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan called Abbas Stanakzai’s statements "self-serving and fanciful”. (https://www.afintl.com/en/202402222761)

Even the spokesman for the Islamic Emirate, Zabihullah Mujahid reacted with a snub to the US official.

"America has no right for an intervention here and it is not related to America either. I repeat again that this is the issue of two nations that live on both sides of the line,” Mujahid said. ( https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-187531)

“Living in the past or in a state of denial hardly helps in the way forward,” Asif Durrani, Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan, told me. This is a globally acknowledged border between the two countries and there is no point in stoking this issue every now and then, he remarked.

Pakistan also keeps reiterating it accepts and respects Afghanistan as a sovereign country and expects it to rationalise its foreign relations to break the international isolation.

Rude Awakening

This context – surge in violence inside Pakistan, Taliban’s radical sharia views and the bogey of Durand Line – makes it abundantly clear that the militia’s return to power turned out to be a Rude Awakening for Pakistan. It threw up its own challenges for it – much different from those that the distant US or its allies face.

Pakistan, while trying to stay in step with the UN-led efforts on how to engage with Afghanistan, is at the same time trying to prioritise relations with the neighbour according to its own socio-political and geographical context.  Conditions there directly impact Pakistan - security, refugees, illegal entrants, trade and hence require a more calibrated approach on how to deal with that country.

But, it seems, the Taliban leadership may have taken this as Islamabad’s compulsion and hence dragged their feet over the TTP issue, which Pakistan meanwhile treats as its red line.

They apparently also mistook the Pakistani, Chinese, Russian and Turkish support for granted, without understanding that the regional support stemmed from multiple factors, including China’s desire for regional economic outreach through BRI. They also expected unquestioned Chinese and Russian support as a boon from geo-politics.

Lessons for Pakistan – And the World

The lesson from the two decades of war in Afghanistan is that foreign military interventions have never solved problems that a country faces nor can diplomatic coercion help in dealing with a conservative tribal society such as Afghanistan.  

Secondly, Pakistan has learnt the hard way that a militant group should never be taken for granted. It can turn on you too when it deems fit.  (Refusal to act against TTP, IMU and ITP on requests by Pakistan and China).

Thirdly, perusal for peace through exceptionalism such as excluding Iran - one of Afghanistan’s immediate big neighbours - from the peace process will never work.

Fourth, conflicts require local recipes, not imposed solutions, such as the nation-building that the US indulged in but abandoned in haste for domestic reasons.


Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies in Pakistan. Gul has reported on terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan for many years and is perhaps the world's leading authority on Waziristan.



Academicians and Officials interested to publish their academic pieces on this page, please approach us through: opinions@aissonline.org

The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.