Pakistan’s hand in the Taliban’s victory (Analysis)

Members of Taliban forces sit at a checkpost in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

As the Taliban swept across neighboring Afghanistan, some Pakistanis saw it as a reason to celebrate. Islamist organizations in a number of Pakistani cities doled out sweets to locals. On social media, some people crowed over the failure of the U.S. war effort and nation-building project next door. “Afghanistan is presently witnessing a virtually smooth shifting of power from the corrupt Ghani government to the Taliban,” tweeted Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, mocking the assessments of Western experts on South Asia. He added that “the contraption that the US had pieced together for Afghanistan has crumbled like the proverbial house of cards.”

Khan himself made a curious remark at an event Monday in Islamabad. Commenting on the cultural dangers inherent in English-language education for Pakistani society – and the “mental slavery” it supposedly imposes – he seemed to point to the fundamentalist Taliban as an exemplar of a kind of empowering authenticity. Afghans, Khan said, “had broken the shackles of slavery.”

For now, Khan’s government has refrained from recognizing the new Taliban overlords as the legitimate government in Kabul. The prime minister, who has been a vocal opponent of the American “war on terror” in the region and blames it for stoking a parallel Pakistani Taliban insurgency, stressed the “importance of all sides working to secure an inclusive political solution,” according to local news reports Tuesday. He and his allies cast Pakistan as a victim of cycles of regional unrest and conflict, exacerbated by the interventions of foreign powers like the United States. “We under no circumstances are prepared to see protracted instability that in the past has caused spillover into Pakistan,” national security adviser Moeed Yusuf said in an interview this month. “Pakistan has suffered all of these 40 years.”

Such rhetoric would probably stick in the craw of the Afghan leaders of the defeated Western-backed government. For years, they bemoaned the support afforded to the Afghan Taliban by Pakistan, particularly by the country’s military establishment and its affiliated intelligence apparatus, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. In January 2020, during a World Economic Forum roundtable with journalists, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani scoffed at Pakistani claims that the Afghan Taliban was no longer operating from safe havens in Pakistan. “One can also say that the Earth does not revolve around the sun,” he said.

The Taliban’s long-running insurgency and its rapid takeover of Afghanistan are inextricably linked to Pakistan. For the better part of half a century, Pakistan cultivated militant elements in Afghanistan as part of its own regional pursuit of “strategic depth.” The factions that coalesced into the Taliban maintained extensive logistical and tactical ties with Pakistani agencies, while many of their fighters came from a world of ethnic and tribal affiliations that spanned both sides of the rugged border. These same networks probably enabled al-Qaida terrorist founder Osama bin Laden to find sanctuary in a leafy compound not far from Pakistan’s leading military academy until U.S. Navy Seals killed him in a raid a decade ago.

For its allies in the Pakistani establishment, the Taliban’s appeal was both political and tactical, even as Pakistan served as a major U.S. ally during and after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. “Some sympathized with the Islamists’ extreme ideology, while others deemed it an indispensable asset to counter India,” noted the Financial Times. “Taliban leaders have lived and done business in Pakistan, and wounded fighters have been treated in its hospitals. The Haqqani Network, an affiliate of the Taliban, has a ‘close relationship’ with the ISI, according to a recent report from the US Institute of Peace.”

This has long been an open secret. “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America,” Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, said on television in 2014. “Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”

Now, from former E.U. leaders to Afghans on social media, there are calls for tougher international action on Pakistan. “Without Pakistan’s intelligence and military establishment’s unstinting support for the Taliban, the group would be a nuisance rather than an effective fighting force,” wrote academic C. Christine Fair in Foreign Policy this week. “The United States has steadfastly refused to do the one thing it could have done long ago: targeted sanctions against those in Pakistan’s deep state who sponsor Islamist militants.”

On the contrary, the United States leaned on Khan’s government to facilitate talks with the Taliban. Under Trump administration pressure, Pakistan released Abdul Ghani Baradar – the political figure likely to be at the head of a future Taliban-led government – from prison in 2018 so he could participate in peace negotiations held in Doha, the Qatari capital. In a June op-ed in The Washington Post, Khan argued that he and his government did the “real diplomatic heavy lifting” to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and urged Ghani’s government to “show more flexibility” in the talks.

Critics argue that the talks served as a smokescreen for the Taliban’s steady advance through Afghanistan, and that the ultraconservative faction never had any interest in preserving the constitutional republic that the United States sought to solidify in Kabul. This has implications for Pakistan, too.

“The Taliban’s military takeover of Kabul violates the peace agreement signed by the Afghan Taliban and the United States in Doha last year, so that agreement is essentially dead,” wrote Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir in a Washington Post op-ed. “Now we face a state of yawning uncertainty – one that affects Pakistan, perhaps, more deeply than any other regional power.”

At home, wrote political scientist Fahd Humayun, Pakistan could face a new influx of Afghan refugees, on top of the approximately 3 million it has hosted since the waning days of the Cold War. The Taliban takeover does not dim the threat of anti-Islamabad militancy, and it could also encourage Islamist extremist movements and ethnic Pashtun separatists operating within Pakistan. Meanwhile, Western frustrations with the Pakistani connection to the Afghan Taliban may only intensify in coming weeks.

“These developments will take Pakistan further away from becoming ‘a normal country,’ perpetuating dysfunction at home and locking it into a foreign policy defined by hostility toward India and dependence on China,” wrote Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador now based in Washington. “The United States is unlikely to soon forgive Pakistan for its decades-long enabling of the Taliban.”



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