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5 ways the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will hurt Pakistan

Pakistan’s relationship with its own religious groups — and with Washington — just got more complicated

People arriving from Afghanistan pass through the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Aug. 16. (Reuters)
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Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said Monday that Afghanistan has broken the “shackles of slavery,” as the Taliban returned to power following a dramatic collapse of the Afghanistan government over the weekend. But what does a new Taliban regime actually mean for neighboring Pakistan?

The U.S. government — along with many Afghans — has long been frustrated by Pakistan’s perceived logistical support for the Taliban. This issue has strained Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Observers in Kabul and Washington have also held that Pakistan’s security establishment considers a Taliban victory in Afghanistan to be in Pakistan’s strategic interest.

Officials in Pakistan have continued to deny these allegations, declaring their opposition to any forceful takeover of power in Afghanistan. Official statements following the Taliban’s takeover maintain that an inclusive intra-Afghan settlement remains the only way forward. In addition to hosting intraparty political talks this summer, Pakistan’s army chief reportedly twice walked out of these meetings, frustrated at Taliban intransigence on intra-Afghan negotiations.

This may sound like a familiar ploy from a neighbor whose military leadership has long been accused of playing spoiler rather than stabilizer in Afghanistan’s affairs. And it is likely that many within Pakistan’s security establishment will be glad to see the back of the Ghani administration, whose leaders had become increasingly hostile toward Islamabad.

But there are at least five reasons the return of the Taliban may not be good news for Pakistan, as is commonly assumed.

1. A Taliban takeover doesn’t reduce the threat level in Pakistan

Terror groups that have been targeting Pakistani civilians and security personnel with renewed vigor will probably see a Taliban coup as proof that political violence works. These groups include Baloch separatists and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has enjoyed a significant resurgence from its base in eastern Afghanistan after an internal reunification with splinter groups in 2019. Many analysts also believe the TTP is increasingly inspired by the Afghan Taliban’s nationalist agenda.

What are the Taliban’s next moves?

A recent U.N. Security Council report notes that as many as 6,000 TTP terrorists are operating from the Afghan side of the border, where they appear to have at least a working equilibrium with the Afghan Taliban. The TTP has claimed responsibility for a growing number of cross-border attacks in Pakistan, including a bomb attack at a luxury hotel in Quetta in April. A Taliban government in Kabul is likely to continue to tolerate the TTP presence in Afghanistan, possibly as a hedge against allegations of strategic dependence on or subservience to its former Pakistani security establishment patrons.

2. Pakistan’s relationship with its own religious groups just got more complicated

A Taliban takeover may well embolden Islamist parties and groups within Pakistan’s democracy. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership have grappled with the growing street power of right-wing groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and a rising intra-Sunni Barelvi-Deobandi rivalry that has both politicized and polarized Pakistan’s conservative base.

A Taliban takeover would also seriously challenge the counter-extremism policies that Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have quietly attempted to tackle homegrown radicalization.

The Taliban has seized more cities, despite U.S. efforts to build a strong Afghan military. What happened?

3. Relations with Washington also become more complicated

A Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would probably make a long-fraught Pakistan-U.S. relationship even more complicated. While more than a decade has passed since the United States officially considered Pakistan a front-line ally in the war on terrorism, economic and military cooperation between Islamabad and Washington continues.

But the United States may be unwilling to diplomatically invest much more in a country it sees as sharing at least some of the blame for U.S. failures in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s government has also been trying to get the country off the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force’s “gray list” for terror financing and money laundering. Pakistan’s perceived association with a Taliban government in Afghanistan, especially a regime that refuses to expel terrorists from its soil, may hurt those efforts.

4. Pakistan won’t find it easy to attract economic investment

A Taliban takeover in Kabul is also likely to hurt Pakistan economically. Pakistani officials want to connect economically with neighboring countries and attract greater trade and foreign investment within the region. It’s unclear whether the Taliban would be viable partners for planned regional infrastructure and connectivity projects — or whether a new Afghan regime would pursue socioeconomic development via an open and integrated market economy.

On a related note, militancy in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland — if an emboldened TTP targets Pakistani cities — would hurt Islamabad’s attempts to convince officials in Beijing that Pakistan is capable of safeguarding Chinese-led Belt and Road investments in the country.

5. Pakistan may become home to even more Afghan refugees

As violence, fear and displacement rise in Afghanistan, the prospect of additional refugees is already a palpable source of anxiety in Islamabad. Pakistan hosts an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees, largely financing this effort through its own funds. This number is likely to increase sharply if the conflict intensifies, or if the Taliban enforces an Islamic emirate that is unacceptable to parts of the population.

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In particular, a further influx of Pashtun refugees in search of security and opportunity could provoke greater ethnic conflict in cities like Quetta and fuel greater Pashtun separatism, already prevalent in Pakistan’s recently merged tribal districts bordering Afghanistan. It is also unlikely that the Taliban would officially recognize the international border between the two countries, a point of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan that has complicated efforts to police the cross-border movement of people and goods.

While many in the West believe the Taliban’s return to power to be Pakistan’s preferred outcome, the rapidly evolving political situation in Afghanistan also poses added concerns for Pakistan. Whether Pakistan can absorb the costs of the Taliban’s return to power, without significant consequences, remains an open question.

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Fahd Humayun is a PhD candidate at Yale University’s department of political science. Follow him on Twitter @fahdhumayun.