Pakistan's tricky adjustment to the Taliban's return to power next door

A month after Pakistan's prime minister heralded the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan as "breaking the chains of slavery," his government is adjusting its conflicted relationship with the Taliban and urging the world to help Afghanistan rather than isolate it. Susan Ormiston reports from Pakistan.

Relationship presents opportunities as well as serious challenges for Pakistan

Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 4. Pakistan sees challenges and opportunities with the Taliban's return to power in neighbouring Afghanistan. (Saiyna Bashir/Reuters)

A month after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan heralded the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan as "breaking the chains of slavery," his government is adjusting its conflicted relationship with the Taliban and urging the international community to help Afghanistan rather than isolate it. 

"[The Taliban government] clearly feels without international aid and help, they will not be able to stop this crisis, so we should incentivize them, push them in the right direction," Khan said in an interview with CNN last week in Islamabad.

Pakistan's foreign minister followed up this week at the United Nations meeting in New York.

"The international community has to realize: What's the alternative? What are the options? This is the reality, and can they turn away from this reality?" Shah Mahmood Qureshi told The Associated Press.

A Taliban government installed next door in Afghanistan, a country in a deep economic crisis, presents Pakistan with some complicated challenges, but also, it says, potential opportunities.

Security top of mind

Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister, says with the Taliban in Kabul, Pakistani officials hope to sit down with neighbouring countries to find ways to establish peace in the region. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

With the Taliban now in power, many in Pakistan's government believe there is a chance to bring more security to the region. 

"We feel more secure in the sense that we know that the government we have in Kabul today is much more sympathetic to the concerns of the neighbouring countries," Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Khan, told CBC News in Islamabad. 

"Unfortunately, the governments which have ruled Afghanistan in the last 20 years were not inclined to do this."

Paratroopers prepare to board a U.S. air force C-17 to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 30. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war was chaotic and coincided with the Taliban taking back control of the country by force. (Master Sgt. Alex Burnett/U.S. Army/Reuters)

After two decades of war, the U.S. and its allies pulled out of Afghanistan, wrapping up a massive and chaotic evacuation on Aug. 30, leaving the country ruled by the Taliban.

The Taliban wants international acceptance, promising an inclusive government, but so far has shown no signs of including women or minorities.

Many Afghans fear a repeat of the Taliban's violent rule in the late 1990s, when women were banned from working or going to school.

The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan has a long and complicated history with Afghanistan, whose conflicts have cost lives in Pakistan as well. The country hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees from previous waves of migration, and up to two million more who are undocumented.

Pakistan's borders are effectively closed to Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban's rule, unless they have a visa or medical exemption to enter Pakistan.

Pakistani soldiers stand guard in front of a member of the Taliban force, in the background, during an organised media tour to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing in Torkham, Pakistan, on Sept. 2. (Gibran Peshimam/Reuters)

The U.S. and other countries have accused Pakistan's intelligence services of supporting the Taliban with training, money and weaponry, allowing them to live in Pakistan and move back and forth across the border — allegations Pakistan has long denied.

"We have looked after millions of Afghans for a number of years now," said Hasan. "But why is it that the world prefers to just talk about those few [Taliban] families, not about the four million refugees that we still have in Pakistan? It's overstated."

Controlling the narrative

However, now that the Taliban is in power, Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan is being reexamined — in both countries.

"[The Taliban] want to show a bit of a distance between Pakistan and the Taliban now that they are in control, because they don't want to be seen as Pakistan's stooges, or something like that," said Pakistani journalist Haroon Rashid, managing editor of Independent Urdu, an online news service and offshoot of the U.K.-based Independent.

Inside Afghanistan, it will be very difficult for the Taliban to counter the negative reaction, if it builds, "that this is all of Pakistan's men who have taken control," Rashid said in an interview with CBC News.

Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15. (Zabi Karimi/The Associated Press)

However, one of the first foreign visitors to Afghanistan, just two weeks after the fall of Kabul, was the head of Pakistan's intelligence services (ISI), Lt.-Gen. Faiz Hameed. 

That visit on Sept. 4 fuelled speculation in the region that Hameed was counselling the Taliban on the make up of their new government and strategizing about quelling resistance, which the Pakistan government denies.

"If you go by the Taliban statement, the visit was fruitful," said Rashid.

Haroon Rashid, managing editor of Independent Urdu, a Pakistan-based online news service, says opinions in Pakistan on the new Taliban government are divided. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

But the optics were curious, he said, as Hameed was scrummed by reporters in the hotel hallway holding a cup of tea, smiling and saying, "Don't worry, everything will be OK." 

"The picture of General Faiz Hameed with a cup of tea ... was it intentional? Or was it just to show off that ISI is in quite a comfortable position in Afghanistan or something like that?"

Inspiring extremists

Behind Pakistan's strategic calm, there is increased vigilance on the border, says Pakistan's interior minister, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, amid concern the Taliban's rise will embolden extremist groups in both countries.

"We will not allow anybody to attack inside of Afghanistan from Pakistan, and we will not allow anybody to attack from Afghanistan into Pakistan," Ahmad told CBC News in Islamabad. "This is decided. There is no compromise on this."

Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, Pakistan's interior minister, says the Taliban has provided assurances it won’t let terrorists use Afghan soil to attack Pakistan, but with the regional power shifts, border security is a priority. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

A United Nations report released in June 2021 said approximately 8,000-10,000 "foreign terrorist fighters" were in Afghanistan, and a 2020 report said 6,000 fighters were from Pakistan, affiliated with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group that has attacked Pakistan's security forces.

A Sept. 5 suicide attack in Quetta, Pakistan, located on the border near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers, and seven more soldiers died in a gunfight with the TTP near the border in northwestern Pakistan on Sept. 15.

Divided opinion

Despite the concerns, the new Taliban government does inspire hope for peace among some Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

"America's army has gone back and the Taliban will work best for us," said Tasal Khan Nurzad, an Afghan in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His father, a doctor, came to Pakistan as a refugee back in 2000. 

Tasal Khan Nurzad, a second generation Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, says the Taliban is good for the region, and, in time, could bring more stability. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Nurzad's cousins live across the border in Afghanistan.

"We are happy now," he said, referring to his family on both sides, though he acknowledged peace in Afghanistan will take time. "We will give them time, and the Taliban will bring peace."

In these early days of Taliban rule, few can predict what will transpire in the region, and some in Pakistan dread the insecurity that could follow.

Rashid says the liberals and the moderates in Pakistan worry the Taliban's rise to power will "give strength to the religious hardliners in Pakistan to come forward and take charge." 

"So you get a divided opinion in Pakistan."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.