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Pakistan And The Taliban's Relationship Spans Decades. Here's What It Looks Like Now


When Taliban fighters were sweeping across Afghanistan, the hashtag #SanctionPakistan lit up the Twittersphere. Pakistan has long been seen as backing the militant group in defiance of the rest of the world. But now that the Taliban have seized control of Afghanistan, that relationship could change. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Taliban's stunning victory in Afghanistan was met with horror throughout much of the Western world. It was a slightly different story in some quarters of Pakistan. A few days after militants seized Kabul, a white-and-black Taliban flag was flying from the roof of a radical mosque here in Islamabad. Social media showed government officials celebrating, and Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Taliban had broken the shackles of slavery. The jubilation signaled the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan was as much a win for Pakistan's government as it was for the militants.

AFRASIAB KHATTAK: Taliban is a project of security institution of Pakistan. It's not really an Indigenous Afghan movement or something.

NORTHAM: Afrasiab Khattak is a veteran politician and considered an authority on Pakistan-Afghanistan affairs. He notes Pakistan was only one of three countries to recognize the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan in the mid-'90s and gave them life support after the U.S. invasion of 2001 ousted them from power.

KHATTAK: Taliban support is - comes basically from military, which insurgency in another country can survive for more than two decades without sanctuary, support, supplies, everything.

NORTHAM: Khattak says Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban goes back decades to when the mujahideen were based in the northwest city of Peshawar.


NORTHAM: Horse-drawn carts compete with motorbikes and speeding cars on the streets of Peshawar.


NORTHAM: You can get a nice piece of freshly fried chicken at this market in the old part of Peshawar. There's a chaotic jumble of shops and stalls here, selling everything from walnuts to wheelbarrows. Peshawar has a Wild West feel and has been a natural base for various groups fighting in Afghanistan for decades, including the Taliban. Mehmood Jan Babar, a local journalist, returned from Kabul a day before he spoke to NPR. He says many Afghans see the Taliban as proxies of Pakistan, an image the Taliban is trying to shake.

MEHMOOD JAN BABAR: I think they're - they are also not comfortable with Pakistani tag on their back, that they are Pakistani brand. They are not happy with this.

NORTHAM: There are already indications that Pakistan's influence over the Taliban is starting to diminish, says Shameen Shahid, a long-time reporter in Peshawar.

SHAMEEN SHAHID: Taliban has established one office in Doha, Qatar. Taliban also establish links with Iran, with the Russian Federation, China and also in India. You know that at the moment Pakistan is jubilating, but I think that in the near future, Pakistan will face some problems just due to these rifts.

NORTHAM: One of the biggest concerns for the security establishment in Pakistan is that the Taliban's swift and decisive victory in Afghanistan could embolden other extremist groups in the region. Javed Ashraf Qazi is the former chief of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service. He says there's a particular fear of a resurgence of the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP. Qazi says the group is vehemently anti-Pakistan and has launched hundreds of deadly attacks in the past.

JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: We have been hit by TTP very badly. We have lost 70,000 lives, and we want that to stop. This is our priority one. And here, we will certainly ask the Taliban to help us by controlling TTP. If the Taliban give them a free hand, certainly we would have a point of dispute.

NORTHAM: There's also ISIS-K, which launched the recent attack at the Kabul airport, and other groups. Javed says Pakistan's security forces will be able to push back against extremists trying to infiltrate the country. But it's part of a new dynamic Pakistan will have to deal with now that the Taliban is in power next door.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.