Pakistan ’s decision makers have their fingers crossed ahead of an eagerly anticipated speech by Taliban chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada that will cast the die for Afghanistan ’s political future. Islamabad hopes Akhundzada’s policy-defining address, expected to be delivered by Sunday, will reassure the international community that the Taliban has evolved from a globally reviled terrorist group into a palatably responsible state actor, according to journalists who this week attended a briefing conducted by Pakistan’s powerful military. However, Islamabad is also concerned that Akhundzada’s speech could trigger an international backlash against Pakistan because of its long-standing support for the Taliban – particularly from the United States and other Nato members humiliated by the sudden capitulation of the Afghan government last Sunday. Taliban’s return ‘boosts morale’ of militant groups in Southeast Asia Since then, widespread shock at the ease of the Taliban takeover and heart-rending scenes of Afghans desperately trying to board evacuation flights out of Kabul have focused the world’s attention on the abandonment of Afghanistan by deposed president Ashraf Ghani’s administration, and the handling of the US military withdrawal by President Joe Biden . At the same time, Pakistan has lobbied the international community – close allies China and Russia in particular – to garner support for collective diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as a means of ensuring that the group keeps its promises to form an inclusive administration, prevent terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and allow women access to education and employment. Apart from Afghanistan, “Pakistan has the most to gain from peace in its neighbour and the most to lose from strife and instability”, said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, the United Nations and the US. “As the situation today is in flux in Afghanistan, it is too premature to say what Pakistan stands to gain or lose. That would depend entirely on how the situation pans out,” she told This Week In Asia . So what exactly is Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban? The South Asian nation has long had a paradoxical role in Afghanistan – accused of providing covert support to the Taliban on one hand, while playing a major supporting role in the US war on terror against al-Qaeda on the other. Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban was formed in the mid-1990s, after the Islamist militia emerged from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar to quell the chaotic civil war that had been going on since the departure of occupying Soviet forces in 1989. Many of the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban fighters and their families lived in Pakistan as refugees, spoke Urdu and were friendly with their hosts. On the other hand, the non-Pashtun factions making up the Northern Alliance opposed to the Taliban had a history of hostility towards Pakistan predating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Islamabad was forced to set aside its preferences in Afghanistan when presented with an ultimatum by the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks planned by al-Qaeda leaders hosted by the Taliban. India gears up for Taliban-run Afghanistan as Russia, China extend influence Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf seized the opportunity to once again make his country a close ally of the US, thereby gaining it billions of dollars of debt relief and military aid. Islamabad, however, was galled when Washington ignored its advice to accept a Taliban surrender and include the group in negotiations on Afghanistan’s political future. Instead, the 2001 Bonn agreement led to the creation of an Afghan government dominated by the Northern Alliance, the leaders of which were friendly with India, Pakistan’s perennial foe. Pakistan appears to be gearing up to further rehabilitate the Taliban on the international stage Asfandyar Mir, analyst After US political attention switched to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Washington began to draw down on its military assets in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s relations with the government in Kabul deteriorated. American officials in 2004 reported that Islamabad had quietly resumed supporting the Taliban after the group showed signs of resurgence in the provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, describes the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban as “a marriage of convenience based on tactical divergences in Afghanistan”. “For Pakistan, it was to keep India out of Afghanistan by helping the Taliban. For the Taliban, it was to resist the US presence and eventually force it out of Afghanistan by availing itself of sanctuaries in Pakistan,” he said. Beyond this marriage of convenience, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban had “its own ups and downs, disagreements and divergences”, Basit said. For instance, Islamabad was frustrated by the Taliban’s lack of action against the thousands of Pakistani Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, he said. At a confidential parliamentary briefing of Pakistan’s politicians on July 2, Inter-Services Intelligence agency chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed described the Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group as “sides of the same coin”. Likewise, the Taliban has not trusted Pakistan since it sided with Washington in the global war on terror and handed over several Taliban leaders to the US. Since the US signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February last year and announced plans to withdraw its military from Afghanistan, the relationship between the Taliban and Islamabad “has been transforming and divergences will increase”, Basit said. The Taliban resisted pressure from Pakistan’s military leadership against launching a nationwide offensive while Nato forces were still in Afghanistan, and to engage in negotiations with the Kabul government on sharing political power. Afghanistan debacle will make US courtship of Southeast Asia all the more difficult The Associated Press last month reported that Pakistan’s army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa was so frustrated by the Taliban’s intransigence that he twice walked out of meetings in Islamabad with its leaders. This friction was further evident in early August when the Taliban closed the Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan to press demands for visa-free cross-border movement of Afghan nationals. The Taliban also threatened to suspend Pakistan’s trade via Afghanistan with Central Asia. Stanford University analyst Asfandyar Mir said the Pakistan-Taliban relationship, “which has effectively weathered everything the last two decades”, will be further tested now that the Taliban are in power. Issues of governance, the decades-long border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the overall foreign policy of the Taliban would be at play, he said. “The relationship will have more pressure points,” Asfandyar said. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it tends to rhyme, especially in this region. So I do remember that in the ’90s, after the collapse of the Najibullah government, Pakistan soured on the mujahideen once the power-sharing arrangements lapsed and the civil war intensified.” What will Pakistan gain from the Taliban’s ascendancy? Contrary to its oft-stated diplomatic position that it has no favourites in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government is clearly comfortable with the return of the Taliban, according to analysts who spoke to This Week in Asia . Within hours of the fall of Kabul, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Afghan people had “broken the shackles of slavery” to the West. At least two members of his cabinet mocked the US for its military failure in Afghanistan in social media posts, while the prime minister’s office on Thursday posted a statement reminding the international community that Khan had for 20 years rightfully argued that there was no military solution in Afghanistan, and that negotiated political settlement was the only way forward. “Pakistan appears to be gearing up to further rehabilitate the Taliban on the international stage,” Asfandyar said. Islamabad is optimistic that the fall of the Afghan government will deprive ethnic Baloch rebel groups of logistical support for attacks against Pakistani security forces in western Balochistan province, which houses the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, said Basit from the RSIS. How I left Afghanistan, with a Taliban escort to the airport Pakistan frequently accused the Kabul administration of working with Indian intelligence agencies to support the Baloch rebels, thereby hemming it in between two hostile flanks – India to the east and Afghanistan to the west. With the Taliban in power, “Pakistan’s political influence will increase in Afghanistan”, Basit said. Stability there would enable the extension of the US$65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan, he said, opening the way for Pakistan to trade more freely and frequently with Central Asia and export energy via Afghanistan. But Pakistan only stands to gain in terms of stability on its western border if the Taliban were able to govern effectively, accommodate other ethnic groups and establish lasting peace, ex-ambassador Lodhi said. “Conversely, if they are unable to do so, Afghanistan could face an uncertain and unstable future which will not be in Pakistan’s interest,” she said. What does Pakistan stand to lose? Analysts said it was inevitable Pakistan would face political blowback from the humiliated US government and its allies. Islamabad will have to “bear the brunt of the Taliban’s oppressive policies in Afghanistan” because it was seen as the group’s main backer, Basit said. “The international community will judge Pakistan more than the Taliban for supporting them and helping them form a government in Afghanistan.” Mindful of this, officials told journalists and analysts in Islamabad this week that Pakistan had repeatedly advised Taliban representatives in recent months that it would not accord diplomatic recognition to its government if it sought to reimpose the brutal dictatorship overthrown by US invasion forces in October 2001. Nonetheless, “fears in Islamabad have begun to germinate that the surprising calm of the last few days could give way to an orchestrated campaign of scapegoating Pakistan”, Fahd Husain, the Islamabad-based resident editor of Dawn , Pakistan’s biggest English language newspaper, wrote on Thursday. The Afghanistan images that could tarnish Joe Biden’s legacy Meanwhile, the Taliban’s victory and triumphant jihadist narrative would embolden Islamist radical groups in Pakistan, Basit said. The leaders of Pakistan’s two strongest Islamist political parties this week welcomed the Taliban victory, with one even offering to help the group with its plans for governance in Afghanistan. “They will romanticise the Taliban, become more aggressive and less cooperative, and democracy, free speech and critical thinking will take a big hit,” Basit said. The TTP has “gained a lot with the Afghan Taliban’s ascendance, including the materials of the Afghan military”, said Mir of Stanford University. The Taliban also released some 780 former TTP leaders and fighters from Afghan jails this week. Rather than helping Pakistan, Basit said the Taliban government was likely to press Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP, “something which can become a point of inflection in the future”. Playing on Afghan nationalist sentiment, the TTP recently announced plans to reoccupy Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas and establish an independent emirate there. So will Pakistan recognise a Taliban regime – and how will American and Chinese expectations shape its decision? Pakistan will recognise the Taliban government, according to the analysts, but not any time soon and based on conditions including the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government and respect of fundamental human rights. Islamabad and close ally Beijing would coordinate their positions on Afghanistan, but “both will take it slow and observe instead of rushing in” to recognise the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, Basit said, adding that Pakistan would also wait for Russia to be on board. Mir said US-Pakistan ties would remain strained as well, with Washington asking for counterterrorism support and pressure on the Taliban. The respective decisions of the US and Pakistan on whether to recognise the Taliban government will not be linked, however. “If the Taliban behave responsibly and run their government moderately, US-Pakistan relations will stay afloat without showing any improvement,” Basit said, but if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, however, “US-Pakistan ties will nosedive”.