This is the first article in a monthly series by the author that will highlight possible post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan.
Today, they may be on opposite sides of an emerging Afghanistan-Pakistan proxy battle. But come next year, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban could formally join forces-a jihadist juggernaut with alarming implications for regional stability.
Over the last few months, a series of Afghan Taliban leaders have been gunned down in Pakistan.
The first and most well-publicized incident occurred on November 10, when Nasiruddin Haqqani, a top leader of the Haqqani Network (a branch of the Afghan Taliban), was targeted near Islamabad. Then, on December 26, Mullah Noorullah Hotak-a Taliban shadow governor in Afghanistan's Zabul province-was shot dead in Quetta. On December 29, senior Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Malik was killed as well. And on January 6 in Quetta, Mullah Salim, another shadow governor in Zabul province, met the same fate.
The most recent reported incident came on February 17, when Maulvi Abdul Raqeeb, who served as minister of martyrs and refugees when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, was killed in Peshawar.
No one has claimed responsibility for these attacks. Afghan Taliban officials have blamed the Afghan state, claiming that suspects they've interrogated have identified the security chief of Kandahar province as the ringleader. Yet given that some of those killed were reportedly exploring talks with Kabul, this accusation is questionable.
What we do know about this mysterious assassination campaign is that the victims have all been in Pakistan-underscoring the connection between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban, whose top leadership is based in Quetta. Washington, Kabul, and numerous other capitols have long believed the Afghan Taliban receives some level of Pakistani state sponsorship.
Meanwhile, Islamabad and some media accounts contend that Kabul is cultivating its own proxy: the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). Just as Pakistan offers a sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban to use as a launching pad for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, so the narrative goes, Afghanistan provides a haven to the TTP to use as a base for cross-border strikes on Pakistan.
This argument has strengthened since October, when U.S. forces in Afghanistan discovered-and captured-a senior TTP official, Latif Mehsud, travelling to Kabul with Afghan officials. Afghan sources admitted to the New York Times that they were trying to develop a relationship with the TTP-to be used as a trump card in Kabul's dealings with Islamabad, the target of the TTP's insurgency. It's also worth remembering that TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah spent several years in Afghanistan after a Pakistani military offensive forced him to flee from Swat in 2009. After Fazlullah took power in November, one Pakistani analyst said that "he's seen as being hand-in-glove with the Afghan intelligence agencies."
Given that the two Talibans frequently don't get along, it's quite plausible that they would find themselves on opposite sides of a proxy battle. Many Afghan Taliban officials (including Mullah Omar, the group's supreme leader) resent the TTP's violent campaign against the Pakistani state. They have also accused the TTP of using overly barbaric and even "unethical" tactics (the Afghan Taliban, for its part, has attempted to project a more moderate face by pledging support for polio vaccination campaigns and calling for fewer civilian casualties in its operations).
These tensions sometimes explode into violence. Last October saw an armed clash between the two Talibans in Afghanistan's Kunar province. And some media reports have speculated that TTP operatives killed Nasiruddin Haqqani because they believe his organization revealed the location of Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP chief killed in a drone strike just days before Haqqani's own death (though it's more likely Latif Mehsud disclosed his whereabouts after being captured by U.S. forces).
Some analysts warn that if Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to provide sanctuaries to their respective proxies after international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, intensified cross-border attacks could elicit increasingly strong retaliations from the Afghan and Pakistani militaries-and conceivably cause a proxy battle to escalate into full-blown war between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This Taliban-as-proxy debate may be compelling --but is it convincing? Not really. And that's because the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are destined to be partners, not rival proxies.
Consider that the two Talibans-which share a desire for Islamic rule under hardline interpretations of Sharia law-are already cooperating operationally in Afghanistan. The TTP recruits, trains, and dispatches fighters to the country from Pakistan's tribal belt. Both Talibans claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009.
Such cooperation is long-standing. Many current TTP commanders were fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and came to Pakistan only after the Taliban regime they helped bring to power in Kabul was overthrown. In 2001, Sufi Mohammad-later a Swat-based TTP leader and father-in-law of Mullah Fazlullah-led fighters into Afghanistan to battle U.S. troops. Baitullah Mehsud, who preceded Hakimullah Mehsud as TTP leader, worked with Afghan fighters as a low-level Haqqani Network commander before helping found the TTP in 2007. In fact, the TTP's original reason for declaring war on Islamabad was the latter's support for the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan (the current rationale-the need to overthrow an un-Islamic, pro-democratic, illegitimate Pakistani government-came later).
Additionally, the TTP consistently expresses its allegiance to Mullah Omar. "We consider Mullah Omar as the Amir-ul-Momineen," declared a TTP spokesman in a media interview last month, using an honorific that roughly translates to "commander of the faithful." The TTP's often-fractious factions all appear united in their loyalty to Omar. Back in 2009, following a direct request from Omar, three top TTP commanders formally vowed to set aside their differences and make a deeper commitment to the fight in Afghanistan.
Another reason to be skeptical about proxy talk is that proxy-patron relationships aren't as strong as often assumed on either side of the Durand Line. Afghan efforts to forge a partnership with the TTP remain fledgling. And the relationship between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban isn't as cozy as it may seem. Afghan Taliban detainees quoted in a revealing 2012 report prepared by ISAF interrogators show little love for Pakistan: Low-level and high-level detainees alike describe Pakistan as "untrustworthy," "manipulative," "controlling," and "demeaning." They also complain of Pakistan's "willingness to immediately arrest any Taliban personnel deemed uncooperative," and contend that Pakistan has little interest in an end to the war in Afghanistan. This latter allegation, if true, suggests that Pakistan's security establishment could be behind the recent spate of killings of Afghan Taliban leaders (some of whom, to reiterate, were exploring talks with Kabul) on its soil.
The Afghan Taliban's mistrust of its Pakistani patron makes sense; after all, they've previously taken up arms against each other. When he was a Haqqani Network commander, Baitullah Mehsud fought the Pakistani military (no other major branch of the Afghan Taliban is known to have targeted the Pakistani state with force).
In the ISAF report, Taliban detainees express unhappiness about the tight control Pakistan's intelligence agency exerts over them, but conclude that they have little choice but to accept it so long as they require a sanctuary in Pakistan.
Yet this calculus could soon change. With most if not all international troops to be out of Afghanistan by year's end, the resulting security vacuum could give the Afghan Taliban opportunities to re-establish havens there. This suggests that Pakistan-based sanctuaries-a chief source of Pakistan's leverage over the Afghan Taliban-may no longer be necessary, prompting the Afghan Taliban to renounce its relationship with Pakistan and to form a terrifying tag team with the TTP.
The two Talibans could turn their collective guns on Pakistan or Afghanistan. A coordinated assault on Islamabad would allow the Afghan Taliban to take aim at a mistrusted former sponsor. It would also enable the TTP to intensify its quest to unseat its Islamabad nemesis. This scenario may actually already be under consideration. Recall how the Afghan Taliban recently sought and held secret peace talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Perhaps its motivation was to wrap up the war in Afghanistan so that it can eventually redirect its attention to Pakistan (this would also help explain why the Afghan Taliban would seek talks with Kabul at a time when the international troop drawdown seemingly gives it a strong incentive to keep fighting).
In reality, however, deep internal disagreements about the TTP's proper foe (certain powerful factions believe it should be fighting only in Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan) suggests that joint operations in Pakistan would be a hard sell. A more likely post-2014 scenario is that the two groups intensify their assault on Afghanistan, where they already enjoy a strong legacy of cooperation. If recent Pakistani media reports are to be believed, such a plan is already in the works. According to The News, Mullah Omar has ordered the TTP to pursue talks with Islamabad so that its fighters can be freed up to join the Afghan Taliban in a "decisive battle" in Afghanistan next year. Omar has successfully made such appeals before; remember his plea for assistance in 2009, which resulted in the agreement between TTP commanders to deepen their involvement in Afghanistan.
To be sure, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are both riven by internal discord, and some renegade factions from each group would undoubtedly reject the idea of the two entities joining forces. Consider how TTP splinter group Ahrar-ul-Hind has rejected peace talks with Pakistan, and claimed responsibility for a March 3 attack on an Islamabad courthouse launched after a TTP-declared ceasefire. Consider also how hardline Afghan Taliban voices are dead-set against efforts by more moderate colleagues to seek peace with Kabul (which raises the possibility that those Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan are being killed by members of their own organization).
Still, given the widespread legitimacy accorded Mullar Omar by both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, there's little reason to think such internal fractures would prevent the two groups from banding together-though for each of them, such a move would likely spawn more splinter groups and intra-organizational violence.
Yes, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have their differences. Yet at the end of the day, they share the same hardline ideology and use the same violent means to pursue the same destabilizing goals. This suggests that their interests are better served by cooperating than by getting caught up in proxy battles. With Pakistan and Afghanistan either unwilling or unable to tame these two groups, and with international troops leaving Afghanistan, an Afghan-Pakistani Taliban syndicate would make for a formidable and ferocious force in a region already flush with violent fundamentalism.
Meanwhile, for Washington, it would be one more indication that achieving stability in post-2014 Afghanistan-a core U.S. interest-may amount to a fool's errand.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images