In many ways, the Taliban blitz through Afghanistan, that saw the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces crumble in province after province, and took the militant group to the gates of Kabul and eventual victory in days instead of the weeks or months that the CIA had predicted, heralds the return of AfPAk, a hyphenation that Pakistan may no longer rile against.
Many in Afghanistan and India’s diplomatic and intelligence establishments believe that the Taliban victory could not have come without active assistance from Pakistan. Writing in these columns on Monday, India’s former Ambassador to Kabul Gautam Mukhopadhaya described it as a “Pakistani invasion with an Afghan face”.
That assertion springs from the long relationship Pakistan has had with the Taliban, from birthing it in 1994, supporting its first takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, to sheltering the fighters and leaders in the aftermath of the post-9/11 US invasion, even as it claimed to be supporting the US in the “war on terror”.
Through these years, the Pakistan security establishment pushed for talks with the Taliban. But as the long incarceration of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a Pakistani prison showed, Pakistan did not want the Taliban to take the decision of talking to the Afghan government or the US without its assent. Baradar had made the mistake of reaching out to Hamid Karzai independently, during the latter’s presidency. When the Trump Administration made it clear it was serious about talks with the Taliban to achieve the objective of a troops pullout from Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army and the ISI delivered the Taliban leadership to the talks table, from which the Afghan government was pointedly excluded. Baradar, who had been jailed at the start of 2010, was released to lead the Taliban side in the talks in 2018.
The Pakistani security and political establishment is now savouring the Taliban victory. A delegation of leading lights of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, including two brothers of its leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, landed in Pakistan on Sunday and called on foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi Monday. Clearly they believe Pakistan will play an important role in Afghanistan’s new dispensation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said Monday that Afghanistan had “broken the shackles of slavery”. Many retired and serving generals are exultant that Pakistan will finally have “friends” in the driving seat in Kabul, and have expressed admiration openly for the Taliban.
One reason for the Taliban’s swift advance is the ease with which they overpowered the Afghan security forces, its leadership demoralised by the unseemly haste of the US troops withdrawal. But Afghan’s deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh and other members of the Ashraf Ghani government also alleged the Pakistan Army’s Special Forces and the ISI were guiding the Taliban.
While this is not possible to verify, Pakistan’s undeniable contribution has been in providing the Taliban shelter on its territory even as the world expected it to put pressure on the Taliban to arrive at a negotiated political power sharing deal with Ghani’s government. All that Pakistan would say in response is that its influence on the Taliban was “overstated”.
The safe havens had existed from virtually the start of the US “war on terror” in 2001. The US was aware of this, but because its need for Pakistan as a logistics back end for the war in Afghanistan was greater, it did not push the Pakistan military sufficiently to act against these safe havens.
While the political leadership of the Taliban camped in the Balochistan capital of Quetta, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in general, and South and North Waziristan became the revolving door for fighters of Afghan Taliban, and its associated group the Haqqani Network, along with al-Qaeda and a gaggle of other jihadists, who crossed in and out of Afghanistan at will under the benevolent gaze of the Pakistan Army.
In the recent fighting that took Taliban all the way to Kabul, the same safe havens in Pakistan were used to launch their attacks in Afghanistan.
The Spin Boldak conquest by the Taliban saw celebratory motorcycle rallies by Taliban fighters and supporters in Quetta.
Sheikh Rashid, a minister in Imran Khan’s cabinet, told Geo News last month that the Afghan Taliban wounded in the fighting were being treated in hospitals in Pakistan, and that the bodies of those killed are sometimes brought to be buried in Pakistan where their families live.
A July Voice of America report, quoting villagers near Quetta, said funeral prayers were regularly being held for Taliban fighters killed in Afghanistan. After a video clip of the incident went viral, Peshawar police officials confirmed a funeral rally for a Taliban fighter at which pro-Taliban and pro-Islamic Emirate slogans were raised.
The Indian security establishment has held that fighters of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a pet jihadist group of the Pakistan military, fought alongside the Taliban against US and NATO soldiers from at least 2017 onwards.
Taliban as proxy
Over the last three decades, Pakistan has viewed the Taliban as serving a two-fold purpose: first, a Taliban regime in Kabul and its umbilical connection with Pakistan would ensure the Pakistan military a free pass over Afghanistan, territory that it has coveted for “strategic depth” in its enmity with India, while ensuring Pakistan agency over Afghan routes into Central Asia/
Since 2001, Indian involvement in development activities in Afghanistan, and its increased diplomatic presence, were a finger in the eye of the Pakistani establishment, which alleged “encirclement” by India. Post-2004 Afghan governments, whether headed by Karzai or Ghani, were not shy of saying out loud that Pakistan was sheltering the same militants it claimed to be fighting.
In response to Pakistan’s denial of a land route to India for trade with Afghanistan, New Delhi began developing the Chabahar port in Iran, planned with a planned trade corridor via rail to the Iranian border with Afghanistan at Zaranj, with the India-built Zaranj-Delaram highway providing connections to the heart of Afghanistan. This route too may close now.
Second, the Taliban were also an Islamist weapon against Pashtun identity and nationalism, which had taken a life of its own around the time of India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan. Quelled at the time, it rose once again recently in Pakistan in the form of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), triggering a heavy-handed response from the Pakistan military. Conversely, security officials in the Afghanistan government openly courted the PTM as they saw it as a political counter to the Taliban. The Taliban describe themselves as a “Pashtun nationalist force”, the true and political representative of the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, but their extremist Islamist beliefs and their continuing links with al-Qaeda (as documented in a UN report earlier this year) and other global and regional jihadist groups make that claim questionable.
While there is smug satisfaction in Pakistan right now at the proxy victory in Afghanistan, many are also warning of “blowback”. All said and done, Pakistan views itself as a modern Islamic state, and although its generals and political leaders may welcome the second coming of Taliban in Afghanistan, significant sections, including in the military, are quite clear that their own country must be shielded from the impact. An immediate fallout would be an influx of refugees, which would be a drain on Pakistan’s slender resources.
What is of more concern is that the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan may fan the fires of extremism in Pakistan, where an array of jiahdist groups — anti-India, sectarian, pro-al-Qaeda, anti-Pakistan —continue to exist despite several purported crackdowns against them.
In July, Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hamid held a briefing for parliamentarians where they claimed the anti-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban were “two faces of the same coin”, even though earlier, the Pakistani security establishment used to allege that TTP was a creation of India. The Afghan Taliban victory could embolden the TTP, they said, warning of a possible rise in attacks inside Pakistan.
Although the Afghan Taliban may be beholden to Pakistan for all the help rendered over the years, there is concern in the Pakistan Army that some sections of the Taliban may be difficult to bring to heel. Mullah Baradar, jailed by Pakistan for eight years for being independent-minded, may represent one possible friction point. The Taliban as a new US ploy against China, to keep the region destabilised and prevent the Belt & Roads Initiative from taking shape — a theory that is suddenly finding resonance — is another possibility that concerns Pakistan.
The Indian security establishment believes that the ISIS-Khorasan has been populated by the Pakistani security establishment with Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters, as a hedge against Taliban, should it try to break free of Pakistan’s control. For the record, Pakistan and the Taliban allege that ISIS is a creation of India.
What next for India
As India considers its options, it is fairly certain that while India will lose influence in Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan relationship will acquire one more layer of difficulty due to the Taliban comeback.
Memories of the IC 814 hijack, and the role of the Taliban in ensuring that the hijackers got their way as the plane was parked in Kandahar, are still fresh in the minds of the Indian negotiators, one of whom was National Security Adviser A K Doval.
The Haqqani Network, closely allied to both the ISI and the Taliban, is blamed by the US and India for the deadly attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that claimed the lives of an Indian diplomat and an Indian Army officer posted at the embassy, along with 60 Afghan civilians.
The Indian security establishment fears that to escape the Financial Action Task Force lens on Pakistan, India-focused jihadi tanzeem such as LeT and JeM may find new safe havens in Afghanistan from where they will continue to plan attacks against India.