Key Reflections

* One year since the West pulled out of Afghanistan, the country has encountered numerous economic, social, and political challenges as the Taliban’s model of governance lurches the nation towards state failure. 

* The Taliban show no signs of allowing women to play a meaningful role in Afghan society. They will likely go further with more draconian misogynistic policies.

* Hardliners in the Taliban including Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Interior Minister, and Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Supreme Leader, wield significant influence and control, as does the Defence Minister, Mullah Yaqoob.

* Al-Qaeda will grow as a threat in the coming years as it builds its ‘safe bases.’ The group’s anti-Western platform remains intact, and there has not been any fragmentation with its affiliates in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

* Pakistan enabled the Taliban to seize control of Afghanistan, but problems have emerged in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) relationship. The Taliban object to Pakistan erecting a border fence and continue to harbour the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who have increased attacks inside Pakistan. 

* Pakistan is experiencing political and economic turmoil in large part due to the policies of its former prime minister, Imran Khan, who is also pushing anti-Western conspiracy theories that are increasing his popularity within certain segments of Pakistani society. 


SG: Dr. Sajjan Gohel

AM: Dr. Asfandyar Mir

SG: Hello, and welcome to DEEP Dive, brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. Each episode, we speak to experts and practitioners in international security and defence, counter-terrorism, and geopolitical current events to gain insight into the most pressing matters of global affairs.

In this episode we speak to Dr. Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert in the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Dr. Mir has held various fellowships including at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISC) at Stanford University. His research interests include the international relations of South Asia, U.S. counter-terrorism policy and political violence — with a regional focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dr. Mir’s research has appeared in multiple peer-reviewed journals. He is also a prolific Op-Ed writer for newspapers and magazines.

Please note, this podcast was recorded prior to the U.S. counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, which occured on 31 July 2022.

Dr. Asfandyar Mir, a very warm welcome to NATO DEEP Dive

AM: Thank you for having me, Sajjan.

SG: It’s now been a year since the West pulled out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban have regained control of the entire country. There have been many deeply concerning developments in Afghanistan during this past year, what in particular worries you?

AM: So, first of all, I think the rise of the Taliban was a surprise to many on the outside, in the international community. I think the U.S. government didn’t anticipate that the Taliban would return to power even before the U.S. military withdrawal. But others who also now appear to have been surprised include the Taliban themselves, I think they didn’t think that they would be running a country as early as they had to. And so, there’s been a real struggle, I think they very quickly transitioned from a mode of triumphant victory to a lot of concern about how to how to run a country. And it appears that in the last eight to ten months, that concern has only grown, it has deepened, and many in the Taliban feel that they are really struggling; the people are not happy with them, their internal politics are also under a lot of stress. 

And so, in that sense, I think there’s a real concern I have, and I think others do as well, that they can be a state failure. In Afghanistan, we were able to avoid the worst-case scenario for a multiparty civil war, which I think was for the better, because that would have led to a lot of violence. But in some ways, we are back to that concern that maybe this regime is pushing Afghanistan in a direction where it’s very weak state structure and apparatus is going to ultimately collapse. 

So, that’s concern number one, I think the Taliban relationship with several terrorist groups endured. I think that’s not a surprise, but still, it’s interesting and worrying to see how they are going about managing those relationships. So, they have a relationship with a transnational group like al-Qaeda, to this day, and we can talk about how they’re navigating that relationship later on. But then they have relationships with all these regional jihadis, from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to various Central Asian jihadi groups, relationships that they’re very committed to. And they’re dealing with all of these groups politically and by continuing to support these groups, they are increasing the threat that these groups pose to the region. 

And then the final concern is, of course, the [human] rights situation. I don’t think anyone, including people who were advocating for the Taliban, thought that the Taliban were going to democratise. They haven’t done that, no surprise there. But the treatment of women, I think it is a particular concern. The fact that they’re not letting young girls return to school is a big worry. And this is despite the fact that there are some real voices within the Taliban who seem to be supportive. I don’t think this is just a case of good cop, bad cop. I think there’s a real division within the movement on this issue. And the fact that the more regressive of the Taliban leadership is prevailing on this issue and they’re able to keep the schools closed I think that that’s a big concern. And it’s ominous, about the kinds of policies they might enact in the future.

SG: So, you’ve touched upon several key themes that are each worrying in their own standing, issues of governance, the role and ties to terrorist groups, and the mistreatment of women and the state sanction of misogyny, which I’d like to break each one of those down as we continue our discussion. But when we use the term Taliban, it’s in many ways a generic term, because there are so many different Taliban factions and not all of them get on well together. Who are the real decision makers in Afghanistan right now amongst the Taliban entities?

AM: So, even among the close watchers, there remains considerable debate on who matters in the Taliban. I think there’s been a view for a while that perhaps the Haqqani Network in Sirajuddin Haqqani are the most, well he himself and his family, are the most important people in the movement and they’re going to really shape the agenda of the movement. Then we started hearing about the southerners led by people in the networks of the founder of the movement, Mullah Omar, his son. And then we have heard a little bit more about the clerics, the ulama. Perhaps they have more of a say in the day-to-day decision making. 

I think what we are learning now is that, especially in the last few months, that the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, is extremely central to all the major decisions that the group makes. He was generally seen as a figurehead of sorts, someone who stayed in the background and who was just signing off on decisions that others in the movement were coming up with. But we’ve heard from him directly, he recently spoke at a conclave of 3,000 or so ulama clerics, senior tribal elders from across Afghanistan, in which he laid out his vision for the country, which is a pretty hard-line one, he essentially argued that there’s a clash of civilization underway and the Taliban, and the movement, and the jihadist ideology, is on the one side and the West, is on the other day, and that the Taliban should not be feeling the heat and pressure of the international community, and there are always going to be costs of sticking to their particular doctrine and belief system and they need to just stick it out through the tough times. 

So, Hibatullah seems to be very powerful. I think in and around Kabul on the state machinery, Sirajuddin Haqqani is certainly very influential and appears to call the shots on all issues related to internal security. And then I think there’s a role, an important role, being played by Mullah Yaqoob, who is the son of Mullah Omar, I think he’s really come into his own. He has a large following, he’s very young, but he’s able to bring his perspectives and preferences on issues related to foreign policy, and domestic politics as well.

SG: So, this is important how you’ve extracted these key individuals. And as you mentioned, the supreme leader of the Taliban spoke at that Conclave, in which I think some 3,000 clerics were present, all men, and they were making decisions about the lives of Afghans, including women. And this brings in one of the points that you had addressed earlier. When it comes to women’s rights, girls’ education, we’ve seen the Taliban effectively ban women and girls from public life, misogyny seems to be part of their agenda, not necessarily surprising as that is who they wore in the 1990s. They have reneged on promises that they would allow girls back to school, claiming that they don’t have the resources to be able to do it. Where are we heading when it comes to the rights of women in Afghanistan? Is this the Taliban basically, constantly, playing games with the West because they know that the West is keen on rights of women to be restored, and the Taliban perhaps hope that if they keep delaying it that perhaps the West will just lose interest and they can continue to spread this state sanctioned misogyny?

AM: So, I think parts of the Taliban which engage with the international community have been, if I put it politely, they’ve been over promising to the west. I think there was a consensus view within the internationals, who were interacting with the Taliban back in March, that schools were going to be reopened and that didn’t happen. On March 23, we got the edict from the supreme leader that school can’t be reopened, and they offered a justification for it. And ever since, I don’t think there’s anything any of the Taliban leaders who engage with the international community have been able to say, which is convincing on this count, it appears that we are on a trajectory, in which the current ban will stay in place and perhaps harsher social policies will be enacted. 

And again, I will point you to some of the recent speeches of the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and this last one was on the eve of Eid, in which, again, he pointed to the fact that they are going to have to implement, what he refers to as hudud, and these are judicial policies, the more extreme interpretation of the Sharia. He’s saying that they will have to ultimately implement those policies. And so, I think more restrictions are in order. And the Taliban realise that they cannot rule out a lot of these restrictions in one go, that they have to prepare the population. So, in the minds of the supreme leader and some of the clerics around him, they are shaping the population to accept some of the stricter, harsher social policies in the in the coming months and years.

SG: My heart sinks, hearing what you’re saying, because effectively, you’re saying that the Taliban haven’t even gone as far as they want, that we’re looking at more draconian policies that they want to implement on women, including, as you talked about the hudud punishments, which would be very, very disturbing to see enacted. Especially now with today’s age of social media, you could actually see very disturbing imagery, appearing on social media channels of women being abused and violently attacked under the guise of piousness and security.

If we look at another entity that you had also spoken about, the Haqqani Network. They are an internationally designated terrorist group, and its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also a proscribed terrorist. Yet we are seeing interesting and equally disturbing developments take place with this group of individuals. Sirajuddin Haqqani, during the War on Terror kept a very low profile, his appearance was hidden, his face was obscured often in photographs, probably because he didn’t want to be identified in fear of a counterterrorism operation. Yet now we see him everywhere. He is on Taliban propaganda media, he’s at recruitment rallies, he’s even attending meetings with some Western officials, and even being interviewed by the international media. So, are we witnessing the mainstreaming of the Haqqani Network, the mainstreaming of Sirajuddin Haqqani? Are they becoming an accepted face now of Afghanistan? And I’ll just add, again, for those who aren’t necessarily aware about Afghanistan, that this is a proscribed terrorist group and proscribed terrorists, as part of that entity.

AM: Right, I’m here in the U.S., Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group that he leads, is designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the State Department. So, yes, the last decade and more we learned that Sirajuddin Haqqani was leading one of the main outfits, or sub-groups, within the Taliban, responsible for some of the worst carnage, violence, targeting of civilians in the country and now it is surreal to see him as the de facto ruler of Kabul, and not only that, he’s also become the main interlocutor with the international community.

And in that sense, he has become more normal. I wouldn’t attribute intentionality to the role and status he has come to attain. I’m not convinced that there was a real effort at play to place him where he’s at now. But he is certainly more normal. I think diplomats meet him, diplomats of various countries and not just Pakistani officials. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Pakistan have a—or the Haqqanis have a—long standing relationship, but others, I think UN officials see him as their main interlocutor, partly because he controls security in and around Kabul. I think other officials—the Chinese foreign minister made a trip to Kabul, where he met with Sirajuddin Haqqani. My sense is that even from the Chinese perspective, that was the number one important meeting the Chinese foreign minister had in Kabul. More recently, the Indians have been meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani. And if you know anything about Indians and the Haqqanis, that is quite a turnaround. The Haqqani Network blew up the Indian Embassy back in 2008, but now it appears that Indians have a line of communication with him as well. So, all of this is to say that Sirajuddin Haqqani has become a fixture. He is a central interlocutor of the international community, with the Taliban. And when people on the outside want something done, they don’t go to the political office in Doha, or the remnants of it, or even the foreign minister, I think their instinct is to go to Sirajuddin Haqqani who has become somewhat accessible. 

Now, why is that? Why is he seen as accessible? I think part of it is that he is showing himself to be a politician. He is open to engaging and meeting with people from the outside, he certainly carries a lot of authority and in the promises and pledges he makes people think that he’s able to deliver on them. But even he faces limits. We have learned, for example, that he’s one of the people that has been promising, to various diplomats, that the schools for girls will eventually be opened. And that hasn’t happened. And one interpretation is that he’s been lying, and this is the Taliban playing good cop/bad cop.

But on the other hand, I think there are some reports to suggest that his power is also limited within the Taliban’s very complicated, internal political calculation and distribution. I think he really struggles because he’s from the east and the southerners are just so much stronger. And while the supreme leader refers to him on all things security, when it comes to more doctrinal issues the supreme leader and his close circle of clerics kind of have their way.

SG: This is a dynamic that I don’t think will go away anytime soon, where we will continue to see the Haqqanis play a very prominent position in how the Taliban directs policy inside of Afghanistan. And we see it in odd ways too, for example, Sirajuddin Haqqani hiring out the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and honouring suicide bombers’ family members who had served him in the past. Ironically, some of them had been used to target that same hotel, several years before. 

Now, the Haqqanis, of course, retain very close ties to al-Qaeda. And we’ve seen, not just al-Qaeda, but we’ve also seen their affiliate al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and its cadres come to Afghanistan. Arguably, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, he’s producing more content in the last year since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan than al-Qaeda had been producing in the previous decade. Amin al-Haq, Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in the 1990s, who helped bin Laden escape to Pakistan post-Operation Enduring Freedom, has returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan with a Taliban guard of honour. How do we evaluate the Haqqani-al-Qaeda relationship?

AM: My read is that the Haqqani-al-Qaeda relationship is strong. The Haqqanis are committed to protecting and shielding al-Qaeda. Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sirajuddin Haqqani and of course she asked a question about al-Qaeda and Afghanistan becoming a base of terrorism and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s response was instructive. He was careful in saying that we will not allow anyone to use Afghan territory, but he really tiptoed around the topic of al-Qaeda, he didn’t take any names or didn’t even use the word al-Qaeda.

So, the Haqqanis in that sense, seem to have converged on this policy of, ‘well we’re going to protect our friends, shield them, make Afghanistan comfortable for them, but for now, we have to keep a lid on their external activity.’ And that’s partly a function of perhaps their continued diplomatic isolation, the fact that they need funds, resources, from the outside world to run the country, that could be a motive. But by and large, they are very committed to protecting their friends in al-Qaeda. 

What has surprised me, though, is that there is another constituency, which is very supportive of al-Qaeda, and its cadres, and that is, again, the supreme leader and some of the clerics around him. Again, I’d refer you to his speech on the eve of Eid. It’s one of the speeches that I’d expect from an al-Qaeda leader rather than a Taliban leader. The Taliban leaders, at least in their public communications, tend to be more inward, they have a nationalistic sort of strand, they talk about the occupation, but tend to really limit themselves in their articulation of beliefs about jihad, in a way, which is somewhat limited and confined to the region. But the way the supreme leader spoke, he evoked this unending war with the West, a clash with no real bounds. I felt he was really channelling his Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden. And I think that is also informative on how he thinks about some of these legacy relationships with groups like al-Qaeda. With the senior leadership of al-Qaeda, I think he’s very committed to protecting and shielding some of those people. 

So, that’s another key core constituency within the Taliban, which I think continues to be friendly to [al-Qaeda]. And to be sure, there are others who don’t want anything to do with al-Qaeda and my understanding is that some people have advocated that ‘we should get rid of them, they are nothing but a lot of trouble, and they’re the reason we lost our government back in 2001, and so, it will be hard for us to watch them, control them, and they will entangle us in their fights.’ I think this is a real perspective and view held by important Taliban leaders, but they are overruled by some of these other figures, including the supreme leader of the moment.

SG: You’ve, in fact, written a lot about al-Qaeda as future and it’s interesting also that you penned joint articles with Professor Daniel Byman, of how al-Qaeda is faring. They were excellent joint articles, as all of your writings are, in which, in this, you spelt out where you agree, and where you disagree with Professor Byman on al-Qaeda’s importance. And it was very refreshing to see a spirited discussion, but with also a strong mutual respect, and I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers away, if people haven’t read it, but why do you think al-Qaeda is still relevant? And why should we still be worried?

AM: So, I identify a number of factors [as to why] I think al-Qaeda is still a major threat and will be a threat in the coming years. But the two that I will highlight here are their level of resolve and commitment in their anti-American platform. I think there is a real concern for me, the fact that al-Qaeda, despite being the most hunted organisation in the world, has not shifted in its political goal and objectives, the fact that it is willing to take on all these costs, and still maintain the fight against the United States. I think that should tell us that al-Qaeda leadership means it when it says it wants to keep up the fight. So, that’s fact number one. 

The other is, over the last five to seven years, al-Qaeda has not seen any meaningful fragmentation, if anything we’ve seen al-Qaeda consolidate. So, no major affiliate of al-Qaeda has broken away from its orbit, from the AQAP in Yemen, to AQIM in North Africa, to JNIM out in the wild in Mali, al-Shabaab in Somalia, AQIS in South Asia. All major affiliates of al-Qaeda remain within the fold of al-Qaeda core, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, despite the fact that he’s not a charismatic leader at all. And so, that’s striking. And if you look at the trajectories of some of the individual franchises, again, you do not see a pattern of fragmentation, splintering, weakening. Al-Qaeda seems to be holding out in each of the critical theatres. So, the sum of the parts, as I see it, is a very formidable one, and this group has weathered a lot at a time when U.S. counter-terrorism interest is waning. I think resources are being pulled; there’s a shift in priorities from South Asia, from key parts of the Middle East, and Africa. I think al-Qaeda has a real opportunity, and some of the factors that have constrained it over the last two decades are not going to be in play, which will offer this movement more room to pursue its political objectives.

SG: Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that al-Qaeda is enduring, and it is seeking that opportunity to rebuild and re-consolidate its ranks. And something that Ayman al-Zawahiri—as you rightly say, he’s not very charismatic—but one thing he says consistently is about building safe bases. And in order to do that they need to have those allies on the ground, like in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

We’re looking at a very crowded field here of various different jihadist groups. So, to throw another one now into the mix is IS-KP, or ISIS-K, depending on which acronym we use. They seem to be almost a different type of ISIS affiliate, because in many ways, they comprise of Pakistanis and Afghans, some are former Taliban individuals. There are some schools of thought that believe that they still have ties with Taliban factions, including the Haqqanis. And they also continue to operate separately too, and sometimes, at a low level, will cooperate with different Taliban factions. Where are we at with ISKP? Are they also a threat internationally or are they mostly confined to the AfPak region?

AM: So, the US government really sees IS-KP as a more imminent threat in the short to medium term. IS-KP is perceived to be the group which is likely to attempt a major attack outside of South Asia, perhaps in some part of Europe, they may attempt to attack, say, a U.S. homeland territory, that is the assessment. And this assessment comes on the back of IS-KP’s resilience. And this group was weakened quite a bit back in 2018/2019, even early parts of 2020, and since then, it’s been regenerating in Afghanistan, and in a specific part of Afghanistan, parts of the east in areas around Kabul. 

And the strategy that this group pursues is, I call it an ‘out-bidding strategy.’ The idea is that it’s a crowded military landscape, with lots of different groups. So, ‘how do you stand out?’ is the question that some ISIS strategists seem to have asked themselves. And looking at the cousins in Iraq and Syria, they’ve concluded that spectacular attacks, attacks that go against the most vulnerable in the country, and then perhaps some type of regional activity, regional operations, can help them distinguish their brand, and drive the point home that they are more committed jihadists, then say the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And in the fact that with this kind of violence, they can attract Taliban rejectionist elements in the region generally, but in Afghanistan in particular. So, that’s their overall brand and political trajectory.

But on the ground, there’s been a real debate that perhaps ISIS-K, or parts of it, at least, are a front of the Haqqanis. And, you know, I’ve been looking at this question for a few years now. And the best assessment I’m able to come up with is that there were elements of the Haqqanis that joined ISIS-KP. So, for example, the current leader of ISIS-KP is a former member of the Haqqani Network. He’s from Kabul, he seems to have worked for the Haqqanis back in the day. But beyond that, there is limited strong evidence to suggest that the Haqqanis, or any other part of the Taliban, have actually directed ISKP. Instead, what I find is that the confrontation between the two is absolutely real. The Haqqanis are genuinely scared of ISIS-KP because ISIS is able to attract some of their fighters, they are drawn towards ISIS, I have no doubt about that. There’s also the reality that some of the allies of the Haqqanis, like the TTP, look towards ISIS in case the Taliban abandon them, say, due to Pakistani pressure. 

So, for all of these reasons, the Haqqanis and the Taliban at large really see ISIS to be a problem. But the way they’re dealing with the problem is not reducing the problem. They’re making it worse. Their counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism, whatever you want to call it, their approach to countering ISIS is making the problem worse. They have gone for collective punishment-type tactics against the Salafi population in the east of the country, and that’s alienating a lot of people, people are very insecure as well. They fear violence by the Taliban, and that’s pushing people closer to ISIS. I think more people want to join ISIS as a result of that. So, the Taliban are not making things easy, either for themselves or for the region, when it comes to the threat posed by ISIS.

SG: Tied to all of this is US President Joe Biden’s over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in terms of targeting potential threats and big groups that pose a concern to global security, plotting and planning attacks. Yet, although there have been operations against, say, ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria over the last year, there hasn’t been a single over-the-horizon strike in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power. So, is this an issue that it’s just not viable to conduct an air strike, especially as Afghanistan is surrounded by nations who are at best, say, agnostic towards the West? Or is this what you were mentioning about the fact that perhaps there is less focus on what’s happening in Afghanistan because of, say, other distractions like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

AM: There’s a real capacity problem. The US and allies’ visibility to what’s actually going on in Afghanistan is limited. And given how the withdrawal played out, the threshold of risk in terms of targeting going wrong is pretty high. So, with the lack of intelligence and information as to what is actually happening in the country, I think that it’s possible that the CT machine doesn’t have many targets lined up, and it doesn’t know who to interdict or who to disrupt. So, I think that’s plausible. The other problem is, what you were getting at towards the end of your question, this political one, that do we want to be doing a sort of military operation or activity in Afghanistan? I think there’s some ambivalence of that. There is a determination that any kind of external attack or transnational attack capability needs to be countered that might develop in Afghanistan. But at what point should it be countered? When it’s sort of in a more nascent and early stage, or when it’s more late stage? I don’t think we have a good answer on that. And the administration in general doesn’t want anything to do with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. I think they’ve really moved on. 

And they have many other fires to put out. Their hands are full in terms of the domestic political agenda and issues. And, of course on foreign policy, the president was in the Middle East recently, it’s a very complicated situation there with the Iran nuclear deal and tense relations with the Saudis. And then of course, the war in Ukraine is going to go on for a while, and things are also getting fairly complicated with China. So that means that the administration just doesn’t have the bandwidth right now to think about Afghanistan, because even the question of one strike is a pretty complicated one. I think it’s not the same as taking out a target in, say, north-western Syria. The dynamics in Afghanistan, given the history of US involvement, given the regional configuration, is a tricky one. And I don’t think the decision to take a shot is going to be taken lightly; it is going to be a major political decision. And I don’t see the administration as having arrived at that stage, where it is ready to even consider such a major decision.

SG: Absolutely. You mentioned about the lack of bandwidth that the Biden administration has to both Afghanistan and also Pakistan. Let’s look at the role of Pakistan because it’s very significant. You can’t talk about the Taliban and Afghanistan without discussing Pakistan, and many Afghans but also practitioners in the West have blamed Pakistan for enabling the Taliban to return to power. Pakistan itself saw the benefit, in their minds, that an Afghan Taliban seizing control in Afghanistan would prevent both Pashtun nationalist forces from re-emerging in the situation, but also stem the tide of other entities that operate from Afghan soil and have caused problems within Pakistan’s own security apparatus such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistan Taliban, the TTP, who’ve carried out attacks on not just the Pakistani military, but also on Chinese workers who have been part of the Belt and Road Initiative in Pakistan’s specific China project, which is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC. Has Pakistan’s calculus on the Afghan Taliban backfired. Are the Afghan Taliban showing that they have their own agenda and will not bend to the orders of the Pakistani military? Or ultimately will the dictates of the Pakistani generals prevail over the Afghan Taliban?

AM: You know, that’s a really important question, interesting question. And I’ve been looking at this issue for the last year now, and my read is that the Pakistanis certainly wanted the Taliban to return to power, and they did everything they could to make that happen. But ever since the Taliban have taken power, they have been disappointed. I think their initial disappointment started with the fact that the Taliban were not able to convince much of the world to recognise them. I think the Pakistanis wanted the Taliban to put a strong foot forward, or at least convince the Russians and the Chinese. They advocated for them. But the Taliban were not able to convince them. And I think that was the first source of disappointment for them. They saw it partly as their own failing in some ways, but I think they also felt that the Taliban were not compelling enough and were not able to make the case. 

The second problem that Taliban have posed for them is their challenge to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, what is called the Durand Line. I think the Pakistani military expectation was that the Taliban would be so beholden to them that of course they would accept the border as sort of fait accompli. And then this contested border, which no government in Afghanistan has recognised for the last 70 years, it would be a done deal, and that Taliban would just accept the territorial markings as the international border. Instead, what the Taliban did was that they started challenging the border in certain places. Pakistan has erected a fence, they took down the fence in key parts of the border, and that led to some escalation along parts of the border, some exchanges as well. And that was very disappointing to Pakistani strategists. 

And then the third thing, I would say, sort of the biggest problem in the relationship that has emerged since the Taliban’s takeover. And that is the Taliban’s support for the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Now, if you follow Pakistan, you would know that over the last many years, the Pakistanis had portrayed the TTP as getting the help and support of the former Afghan government in cahoots with the Indian government. And there was a pretty elaborate story that was being fed to the Pakistani public that Pakistan’s TTP problem is in effect an India problem, that the Indians are backing these anti-Pakistan insurgents who then go on to fight the Pakistani state. But after August 15, it emerged—I mean, I think close watchers had known this all along—but the Pakistanis started seeing more clearly than ever that the Taliban were extremely committed to the TTP, that they were supportive of this group, and since then, they have given the TTP de facto political asylum. 

In Afghanistan, the leadership of the TTP is treated like royalty, and the chief of the TTP moves around in Afghanistan like a senior minister of the Taliban’s movement. The TTP has a sprawling infrastructure across the east of the country, which has expanded. The TTP is able to recruit people, it is able to train them, and then the worst part from the Pakistani perspective is that they are able to push people across the border, who then attack the Pakistanis. And so, the Pakistanis didn’t expect that at all. They were, again, operating under the assumption that the Taliban would take care of the TTP problem, either really limit the TTP, or ideally carry out a crackdown and expel this group from Afghanistan. That didn’t happen. 

So, for all of these reasons, I think the Pakistanis are disappointed. And I think they’ve cooled off on the Taliban substantially, compared to where they were at back in August, in September. The sentiment that was echoed by the then-prime minister of the country, Imran Khan, that the Taliban have broken the shackles of slavery, I don’t think many senior Pakistani officials hold that view anymore. But at the same time, I don’t think they’re ready to turn against the Taliban. And this could be because they feel stuck with the Taliban, the fact that there’s no real alternative. I think that’s plausible. But I think what’s more plausible, is that they still see Afghanistan or the future of politics in Afghanistan in terms of the India-Pakistan rivalry and potentially Indian influence in Afghanistan. I think they calculate that if the Taliban were to somehow lose power or weaken in the country, then the Indians are going to gain. What their definition of gain is, it’s really in the abstract, but it’s just this fear and paranoia they have, and that outcome is just unacceptable to them. 

So, whatever costs the Taliban are inflicting on them by either contesting the border or supporting the TTP, those costs still are relatively more acceptable to them than the prospect of a regime in Kabul which is more aligned with India. And this is one reason why I think India’s decision to reopen its embassy in Kabul is an important one. I think it really complicates the Pakistani calculus, it’s a variable dimension of their overall posture and policy towards the Taliban that they have not considered until now.

SG: If we stick with the TTP for just a little bit longer, they have engaged in talks with the Pakistani military on behalf of the Pakistani state. Now, both sides have intractable positions; the TTP are not going to give up their agenda, their weapons, their infrastructure, and at the same time, the Pakistani state will not give in to the demands of what the TTP wants, which is the removal of military troops from the tribal areas, the reinstitution of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and issues like that. So, peace between these two entities, we’ve seen it fall apart in the past, and it was somewhat challenging to assume that it could be successful this time. Now, if talks fail between the TTP and the Pakistani military, we’re potentially looking at a bigger problem for Pakistan than they could have ever imagined. And as you very rightly said, the narrative that the Pakistani state used to put out, especially under the Imran Khan government, that the TTP were controlled by the former Afghan government or by Indian entities, that’s proved to be completely untrue, because we’ve seen more attacks by the TTP in the last year than previously. Is Pakistan’s own internal security going to come under real threat if the talks fail between the TTP and the Pakistani military?

AM: So, since the Taliban’s takeover, the internal security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated, and it’s driven partly by the growing violence of Baloch insurgents, ethnonationalist insurgents and separatists, but also the TTP, the TTP’s violence increased substantially over the last year and then in the first several months of this year. And Pakistan’s initial response was to carry out raids and try to beef up the border. And then when their patience really started wearing thin, they responded with cross-border airstrikes in the month of April…coordinated airstrikes in different parts of eastern Afghanistan, where they thought, suspected that the TTP was based. And that was, in my view, meant to shake the Taliban, to get them to put a leash on the TTP. And what the Taliban came back with was, “Well, we can try to broker a dialogue between you and the TTP. And we can help you find a settlement of sorts.” 

And since then, the Pakistanis and the TTP have been talking, there’s a ceasefire in effect right now. And as you note, the TTP is making some very steep demands, and they are very firm in those demands…if I was to really boil it down, what their demands amount to is FATA being handed over to them. And they are not moving an inch from those demands. The Pakistani response was initially muted. They weren’t really talking about it. But finally, the government has come up with a position and admitted that they’re talking to the TTP, they’re negotiating with them in Afghanistan with the help of the Taliban, but they insist that they are going to not agree to a deal that contravenes the Pakistani constitution or that leads to changes in in the Pakistani constitution. They insist that they are not going to reverse the merger of the FATA region into mainland Pakistan. But it is difficult for me to see the TTP moving from some of the positions that it has laid out. And so, there’s a real deadlock. And this deadlock is likely to lead to a collapse in the talks, at some point, is my sense. And once that happens, I think violence will go up, the TTP has a lot of capacity in Afghanistan. It has used this recent ceasefire to infiltrate more of its fighters inside Pakistan. So, it also has more capability and capacity for violence inside Pakistan. And for that reason, I think Pakistan’s internal security, which is already not in a good place, I think it can get worse.

SG: Adding to the problems within Pakistan is the political tensions that have emerged with Imran Khan, the former prime minister, who was ousted from office in a vote of no confidence in Pakistan’s National Assembly several months ago. And he’s been in the headlines ever since, consistently repeating this conspiracy narrative that he was removed due to U.S. interference, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support that. There’s no grounding in it whatsoever. Yet Imran Khan keeps repeating this narrative, and it’s gaining ground within Pakistan, amongst segments of society, including within elements of the military as well. And we’ve only seen just last month, the PTI, his political party, doing very well in regional by-elections in Punjab province, which in many ways is the heart of Pakistan itself. Now, ironically, when Khan came to power in 2018, that was thanks, allegedly, to military interference in the political process. Does he have a chance to actually win the next elections legitimately in 2023? And what does that mean when it comes to Pakistan’s relations with the West, especially as Imran Khan has been so critical of the U.S. in the last many months?

AM: Right. So, Imran Khan has managed to rebound. He was extremely unpopular. Well, I think we can go back to 2018. He came to power with substantial support, but he was pushed across the line by the military and the intelligence services, who wanted to see him in power. And after that, he was not able to govern the country well. The country went through a series of economic problems. Negotiations with the IMF kept getting stalled. And, of course, the pandemic hit, which provided a breather of sorts, but ultimately, he was not able to govern well, and that took a real toll on the economy, made him unpopular. And that unpopularity combined with his falling out with the military, and specifically the army chief, Qamar Bajwa, for several different reasons, I think, enabled the opposition to mount this vote of no confidence back in March and April, which led to his ouster. Now, a lot of us thought that that was it, that Imran Khan had been really unpopular. 

And as you note, he had other ideas; he came up with this conspiracy theory that his ouster was, in fact, engineered by the Biden administration. And strangely has blamed a senior, but still not super senior bureaucrat of the U.S. government, Assistant Secretary Don Lu, as somehow being the point man in coordinating this conspiracy against him. And this conspiracy of his has resonated with a lot of Pakistanis. So recent polling suggests that up to, I think it’s a poll from the month of June, close to 50% of the Pakistani public actually believe his conspiracy theory. And that’s up from a percentage of, I think, 35% immediately after his ouster. So, his message, which is based on a lie, appeals to a lot of Pakistanis, and that’s helped him regroup himself politically. He has been holding massive rallies across the country. And most recently, he was able to win 20-odd seats in the province of Punjab, which puts him on track to return to power whenever the elections are held—they can take place later in the year, they can take place some point next year. But he’s looking very strong, and the incumbent alliance coalition government led by the PML-N, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, including the Pakistan People’s Party, among other smaller parties, is looking very weak. So, Imran Khan is all set to make a comeback, and he could well be the next prime minister of the country. And I think that…if he returns to power, that will pose problems for Pakistan’s relationship with much of the Western world. I think the U.S. government will not know how to engage with him. I think even people will think a few times even before trying to meet with him, because they will be concerned that they will say a thing that he [Imran Khan] might go public with them and he will put a spin on them. So, it will be very difficult for the U.S. to engage with him. I think other Western capitals would also struggle. 

And then I think the bigger problem will be how he manages Pakistan’s flailing economy. Pakistan’s economy is in a freefall of sorts, Pakistan’s currency has been crashing for a while. It is out of foreign exchange reserves. Pakistani ministers, senior ministers, the finance minister, even the prime minister at times, have to run to either Beijing or some Middle Eastern capital to ask for more funds. So, Pakistan really is looking at the prospect of a default. And Imran Khan has contributed to this really precarious economic situation in an immediate way with his populist decisions, and there are no signs that he’s learned his lesson, that he thinks that he’s made any major mistakes. And therefore, it is likely that if he comes back to power, he will make some of the same mistakes again,

SG: It’s quite remarkable that for a man who is clearly limited in his ability to govern, and make decisions that are effective for the economy, for the nation, in terms of providing stability, even handling the pandemic, he ultimately banked on sound bites, and seemed to get away with a lot of the hard questions that others are not necessarily afforded. 

We’ve been having this discussion, and there doesn’t seem to be any real positive news that’s come out of either Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last year. And to conclude, one final question, what should we be watching out for in the months to come for both Afghanistan and Pakistan? What do you think is going to continue to be a problem? What worries you as we go down to the end of 2022?

AM: I’m very concerned about the economic situation in both of these countries. I think the Taliban’s economic management leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a real liquidity problem. The U.S. government has been keen on helping the de facto authorities revive the central bank. And my understanding is that even that conversation remains very challenging. So overall, Afghanistan’s economic situation, the humanitarian crisis there sadly will worsen. And I’m going to be watching that. And there will be downstream consequences of that, on how the Taliban rule the country, the kinds of social ballot policies they enact, the kinds of relationships they end up leaning on, including relationships with some of their jihadist allies. So that’s a major concern for me. And when it comes to Pakistan, again, the economic situation is really bad. And I am not seeing a clear path by which Pakistan makes a recovery. And so, I think the coming months are going to be very turbulent. And if the ceasefire between Pakistan and the TTP lapses, I think violence in Pakistan can go up once again. Already there’s a lot of violence by some of the Baloch insurgents and separatists in the country. But if you add the TTP’s violence in that mix, I think the security situation in Pakistan can deteriorate. So yeah, you’re right, there’s no real silver lining in the region at this point. And the overall outlook is very grim.

SG: Very grim, indeed. And it’s important that you identified those economic and security concerns. It’s only looking at the example of Sri Lanka, who had to deal with both combining and what was once a thriving state actually collapsing. And the recent podcast we did for NATO DEEP Dive demonstrates the intricacies of that. And when you look at Afghanistan and Pakistan, the problems are far more bare for everyone to see. 

It’s been a huge pleasure, Asfandyar, to have you on the podcast. I’m so grateful that you could spend the time, I’m a big fan of your writings, I read them in great detail. You are, as far as I’m concerned, the leading expert on Afghanistan-Pakistan, and I’m most glad, Dr. Asfandyar Mir, that you were able to join us on NATO DEEP Dive.

AM: Thanks so much for having me. And I’m a fan as well, so it was great to chat with you.

SG: It’s been our pleasure and hope to have you on the show again. 

AM: Thanks. 

SG: Thank you for listening to this episode of DEEP Dive. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. DEEP Dive is brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. The production and research team are Marcus Andreopoulos and Victoria Jones. For additional content, including full transcripts of each episode, please visit:

Disclaimer: Please note that the views, information, or opinions expressed in the DEEP Dive series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of NATO or DEEP.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.