Will security concerns block economic cooperation between Pakistan and the Taliban?
Pakistan and Taliban officials meet
A senior Pakistani delegation has visited Afghanistan’s capital for talks with Taliban officials, days after the closure of their busiest border crossing raised tensions between the two countries.
Pakistani Defence Minister Khwaja Asif was joined on Wednesday by other top officials – including Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, the director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI – in their meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Afghanistan acting deputy prime minister for economic affairs, in Kabul.
The visit comes as thousands of trucks remained stranded at the Torkham border crossing following the Taliban’s closing of the key gateway on February 19. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also has warned that the use of Afghan soil by militants from the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is posing a threat to Islamabad.
In a statement, Baradar’s office said the officials discussed economic cooperation, regional connectivity, trade and their countries’ relations.
Sources at Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Al Jazeera on Monday that they were not informed by their Afghan counterparts why the border point, the busiest transit route for travellers and trade between the two neighbours, had been closed.
“There is an understanding reached at the highest level that border crossings will not be closed by either side,” a diplomatic source said. “We will further comment on this development once we are approached by the Afghan interim authorities in Kabul.”
Baradar said in the statement that political and security concerns should not affect business or economic matters.
“Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighbours and should get along well,” he said. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan emphasizes the development of commercial and economic ties with Pakistan as they are in the interest of both countries.”
Security concerns remain significant
Despite the positive comments during the meeting and the downplaying of the impact these security concerns can have on developing economic cooperation, the fact remains that this has been the main roadblock against strengthening ties between Pakistan and the Taliban since its takeover of Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban’s late January attack in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, claimed the lives of more than 100 worshipping at a police compound mosque. The bombing was claimed by a faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) initially, but later denied by the TTP’s central leadership. It was the group’s deadliest attack since its 2021 resurgence after the Afghan Taliban took power in Afghanistan. As Pakistan struggles with a major economic crisis, the fallout from the deadly floods of last fall and an ever-turbulent political scene, the TTP’s growing threat presents yet another challenge for the struggling nation. A threat that must be dealt with in order to ensure security in the country and consequently a chance of economic recovery.
The TTP’s escalating campaign of violence is a function of its growing political and material strength — reflected in its political cohesion, expanding cadre of trained fighters, suicide bombers, weapons and equipment. Much of the TTP’s political leadership and capability is based in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the TTP has regained some territorial influence in southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, like South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Tank, Bannu and Lakki Marwat. The TTP is able to fundraise through extortion inside Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan — across provinces, there are fundraising drives for the group’s so-called jihad.
Many believe that the Afghan Taliban remain very supportive of the TTP and are providing the group with a permissive safe haven. The TTP also has a lot of popular support in Afghanistan, where both Taliban and non-Taliban constituencies get behind the TTP due to a fervent dislike for Pakistan.
A handful of Taliban leaders, in particular Taliban Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani, have restrained the TTP on Pakistani requests on occasion. Yet the balance of opinion within the Taliban is strongly in favor of the TTP and its campaign. In particular, Taliban Amir Hibatullah Akhundzada agrees with the TTP that Pakistani system is “un-Islamic.”
At this moment, the Afghan Taliban appear unlikely to shift their strategic calculus on providing support to the TTP. In the weeks prior and days after the attack, their public messaging has been almost defiant, offering the weakest of condemnations and painting Pakistan as ultimately responsible for militancy within its borders. Speaking to a gathering in Kabul two days after the attack, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, warned Pakistan against “pointing fingers” or “sowing the seeds of enmity.”
This undiplomatic rhetoric underscores the Taliban’s determination to continue supporting the TTP, even in the face of intensified pressure from Pakistan. In January, Taliban security officials leaked a memo to local press that offered a description of training camps allegedly based in Pakistan and supported by the Pakistani security establishment, where thousands of Islamic State fighters were preparing to attack Afghanistan. In effect, the Taliban’s response to being confronted about their support for TTP has been to level counteraccusations — which does not signal an impending shift away from that support.
The state of both economies
Although the Taliban at this moment remains defiant and unwilling to change course in its attitude towards the TTP, the increasingly dire economic situation in the country could force it to compromise, in order to establish economic cooperation with its neighbor. The recent meeting points towards such a possibility.
Afghanistan has faced a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis since the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021.
Since the withdrawal of foreign military forces Afghanistan’s finances have since been hit by a number of other major issues. Sanctions have been placed on members of the government, the central bank’s overseas assets have been frozen, and most foreign aid – which previously supported its economy – has been suspended.
Earlier this year, the Taliban said it planned to sign a contract with a Chinese firm to drill for oil in northern Afghanistan.
The 25-year deal underscores China’s economic involvement in the region.
This is not enough however, and Pakistan’s role remains important.
Afghanistan’s Taliban-led administration has set up a consortium of companies, including some in Russia, Iran and Pakistan, to create a investment plan focusing on power, mining and infrastructure, the acting commerce minister said on Wednesday.
The consortium included 14 Afghan businessmen and his ministry had signed a memorandum of understanding with the foreign companies who would send delegates to Kabul to look into projects worth up to $1 billion, Nooruddin Azizi told Reuters.
Azizi said the administration was focused on launching several longterm business plans including the consortium and special economic zones, and that it was working on ensuring security.
“Lots of discussions on security have taken place in cabinet meetings also, commissions have been established and … the hiding places (of militants) have been destroyed,” he said.
“The Islamic Emirate will ensure security and will support the private sector in the security field,” he said, referring to the Taliban administration.
As well as mining and power projects, he said the consortium was eyeing the possibility of building a second tunnel through the Salang pass that connects Afghanistan’s north to the rest of the country, and a project to divert water from northern Panjshir province to the capital as well as re-building the main highway connecting Kabul to western Herat province.
Pakistan’s economy is also in a struggling state. Pakistan’s economic struggles have persisted for over three years, with the suspension of IMF’s bailout package in 2020, losses from floods in 2022, and political mismanagement leading to an economic crisis in 2023. Pakistan is in a dire position of bankruptcy. Petrol pumps are running short of fuel, and some have even gone dry. The essential commodity prices are skyrocketing, leaving the majority of Pakistan’s population starving. Pakistanis find it hard to make their ends meet with the simmering economic crisis.
With both Afghanistan and Pakistan at a point of desperation economically, and both countries’ markets being crucial for the other for economic expansion and recovery, the Taliban could sacrifice its ideological affinity with the TTP and reduce its support in order to establish a framework for economic cooperation with Pakistan, as Pakistan’s will remains.