A year of progress: Afghanistan and Pakistan tackle the Taliban together

Hubert Cruz

At the start of 2015, the hopes of ending Taliban violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan were dim. Thirteen years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is still haunted by the insurgency, with almost 3,700 civilian deaths recorded in the previous year. Similarly, in Pakistan, the Peshawar school attack in 2014 left the entire nation in shock. 

The deep levels of mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan has often made mutual cooperation to neutralise the Taliban threat seem like a distant hope. Since the Taliban’s inception in 1994, the Pakistani army had provided substantial military and financial assistance to support its operations in Afghanistan and played a critical role in ousting the Afghan civilian government in the late 1990s. Although Pakistan claimed to have ceased supporting the group after the September 11 attacks, it remains a widely held belief that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a major intelligence agency of the Pakistani government, continues to shelter Taliban militants in major cities, such as Quetta and Karachi, and maintain ties with senior members of the group.

Nevertheless, in recent years, Pakistan has also suffered from the rise of the new insurgent group friendly to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The TTP attack on the Peshawar school seemed to mark an end to the Pakistani government's distinction of “good” and “bad” Taliban - the former referring to those attacking Afghanistan and the latter, those attacking Pakistan. Thus, the Pakistani government decided to round up Taliban and other insurgent groups in North Waziristan, who previously used the region as a base for strikes in Afghanistan - a significant departure from Pakistan's traditional policy.

The Afghan government has also taken active steps to patch up its relation with Pakistan. Since taking office in September 2014, President Ashraf Ghani has broken away from former President Hamid Karzai's antagonistic attitude to Pakistan. In an attempt to ease Pakistan’s apprehension of Afghanistan’s pro-India tendency, Ghani refused India’s offer to supply weaponry to Afghanistan. In addition, Ghani deployed forces to fight the TTP alongside Pakistan. Ghani’s gambit soon paid dividends as the Pakistani government was able to persuade the Taliban to take part in negotiations with the Afghan government, signifying a major breakthrough in the peace process. 

Such gestures offer glimmers of hope of eventual peace in the region. Nevertheless, factors remain that threaten the fragile and nascent peace process. For one, Ghani has faced internal criticism for cooperation with Pakistan. Suffering of Afghan citizens at the hands of Pakistani-supported Taliban forces has led to resentment towards Pakistan. With pressure from many sides, it is conceivable that Ghani might choose to abandon peace talks with Pakistan out of political expediency.

On the other side of the table, the Taliban is also divided over the peace talks. During negotiations in Murree, Pakistan, some Taliban officials claimed that those attending only represent the factions close to the ISI, not the entirety of the group. A day before the second round of negotiations, the death of the Taliban's founding leader, Mullah Omar struck the heart of the group with strife and chaos. High-ranking members accused the elected replacement, Mullah Mansour, for being responsible for the death of Omar and a subsequent cover-up. In December 2015, the Afghan government claimed that Mansour was seriously injured in a gun fight with other Taliban fighters, and later died of his injuries. The Taliban deny such claims and the disagreement threatens to end peace talks. 

On the eve of the new year, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will certainly have more reasons to be hopeful for lasting peace than twelve months ago. Nevertheless, the journey that lies ahead in 2016 will undoubtedly be tumultuous and fraught with complications.