Pakistan’s tenuous relationship with violent non-state actors in Afghanistan

Understanding this dynamic is critical to a path to peace in Afghanistan.

Following the news confirming Mullah Omar’s death, analysts have evaluated that internal rifts in the Taliban would derail the on-going peace negotiations. However, little has been said about Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban factions or with militias outside the Taliban fold in Afghanistan. Also missing is an understanding of the direction each of the Taliban factions is likely to take in the changed environment.

It is important to make sense of Pakistan’s tenuous relationship with the various non-state actors in Afghanistan, by overlaying Pakistan’s influence on these groups. A simplified diagram depicting this relationship is given below.

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The violent non-state actors in Afghanistan can largely be divided into two groups — those under the Taliban fold and those outside of it. A subset of actors in both the groups is under Pakistan’s influence, represented as the inner rectangle in the figure. Even those within Pakistan’s coterie are of two types: one, who are publicly acknowledged by Pakistan and two, who fall under the realm of plausible deniability for Pakistan’s military—jihadi complex.

It is important to categorise these groups in the current scenario as the strategies for engaging each of them is different. Let us now go under the hood of each of these sections to understand their terms of engagement with Pakistan.

First, the elephant in the room — the Taliban. The Taliban’s relationship has been succinctly captured in The NewYorker by Barnett Rubin, who quoted Mohammed Umer Daudzai, former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan to this effect: “The Pakistanis claimed they did not control the Taliban. That was too simple—there are some Taliban you don’t control at all and who hate you. There are some you can influence, even if they don’t trust you. And there are some Taliban you do control. At least, Daudzai asked, organise a meeting between the Afghan government and some Taliban you control.”

The Taliban faction that Pakistan controls directly is also the one that has propped up Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur as the new head of the movement. The Haqqani network is the second element in this group, whose allegiance to the new line-up was sealed by making Sirajuddin Haqqani a deputy to Mansur. This group is likely to remain under Pakistan’s influence in the foreseeable future and will make occasional appearances at the Pakistan led negotiation efforts. From an Indian perspective, Pakistan aims to offer the Haqqani network a primus inter pares role in Loya Paktika. This is worrisome as this region has been the hotbed of anti-India militant activities in the past.

The second group is the Taliban that Pakistan controls but claims the opposite. This group is meant to carry out violent attacks on Pakistan’s approval, in tandem with the peace negotiations. Such attacks are meant to serve Pakistan’s interests at the negotiating table while upholding the Taliban’s reputation as a force dedicated to the noble cause of jihad. As Borhan Osman of Afghanistan Anaylsts Network notes“From Mansur’s point of view, consolidation of his authority can best be achieved by his vow to continue jihad. The bulk of the Taleban see the fight against the Afghan government and its western backers as the normal and paramount method of struggle, with political efforts second to this. In contrast, any peace overtures, without emphasising jihad, could be interpreted by Taleban fighters as an unforgivable compromise and betrayal of their struggle.”

Then there is a third section within the Taliban which wants to dissociate itself from Pakistan. This group considers the on-going power struggle an internal problem of Afghanistan. Some notable names in this group are members of Mullah Omar’s family, Mullah Omar’s son-in-law Agha Jan Mutassim, Tayyab Agha and a rump faction in the Qatar political office of the Taliban.

From an Indian perspective, there are some groups who may be amenable to establishing some contact. These factions are on a lookout for backers after Mansur was foisted as the leader of the Taliban. There are reports indicating the flight of some cadres in this category to Iran. Tayyeb Agha, the head of the Political Commission in Qatar visited Tehran in May 2015 with an aim of evacuating the leadership from Pakistan. To prepare against the anti-Shia Daesh’s presence in Afghanistan, Iran is likely to cultivate a part of the Taliban as a bulwark.

Another group in this third category is led by the key commander, Mullah Zakir. This faction is avowedly against peace negotiations as long as foreign forces are stationed in Afghanistan. While this faction has a history of opposition to Mansur Akhtar, their violent attempts at disrupting peace negotiations indirectly aid Pakistani interests.

Outside the Taliban, there are several other non-state actors who can play a role in the larger pursuit of peace in Afghanistan. The first category of such actors is the one who have traditionally been opposed to the Taliban and Pakistan. These groups were a part of the India-Russia-Iran backed Northern Alliance which resisted Taliban through the nineties. While the leadership has subsequently been assimilated into the political process, they still retain violent, albeit hugely reduced capabilities outside the domain of the Afghan state.

A new entrant is the Daesh which has stayed away from Pakistan, but is trying to increase its footprint in Afghanistan. Because of its Arabist background, it is currently just a totem that disgruntled militant factions employ. It would become a rallying point and a threat if Pakistan continues to mishandle affairs. Having identified Shia Iran as a threat, the Daesh could also look at Afghanistan with its not insignifacant Shia population and geographical proximity to Iran as an appropriate battleground.

Groups like the Hizb-e-Islami (HeI), led by Pakistan’s one time favourite Gulbuddin Hekmetyar constitute the category of non-Taliban militants under some form of Pakistani control. With Pakistan throwing its weight behind Taliban factions, groups like HeI are on weak territory. However, HeI continues to wield some political heft in Afghanistan. It is likely to play a political role if Pakistan backed negotiations take place again.

There are also groups within the non-Taliban groups which enjoy some form of Pakistani support. However, Pakistani control on these groups is tenuous as Pakistan has largely focussed on groups under the Taliban fold. How they would react is a moot question.

It is critical to understand Pakistan’s relationship with each of the violent non-state actors in Afghanistan. This dynamic holds the key to resolving important, yet lingering issues. The categorisation described above seeks to draw away from rhetorical classifications like “Good Taliban” and “Bad Taliban” and instead attempts to make sense of the groups integral to the peace process.

Photo: Cecilia Espinoza