In a gamble that pits hope against history, US President Joe Biden and his team are betting that the resurgent Taliban will agree to a negotiated peace deal in Afghanistan, and that the militant group’s long-time state sponsor, Pakistan, will urge them to To share power with the Afghan government.
But many experts believe such hopes are illusory, and history is likely to triumph in the end: Pakistan and the Taliban leadership – still headquartered in Pakistan – will continue to have their backs on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. In short, Pakistan wants the Taliban to win – or at least not do much to prevent it.
“Pakistan supports the Taliban’s offensive. Without Pakistani logistical support, the Taliban would not be able to carry out the massive nationwide attack they are pursuing, ”said Bruce Riedel, who served as senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to four US presidents. “The ISI [Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service] is already pleased to have expelled all foreign troops from Afghanistan. The goal now is to stir up panic in the Afghan government and army. “
The Biden team’s argument is that even after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither the Taliban nor Islamabad want a repetition of the bloody history that led up to 9/11: Taliban atrocities, sanctions, massive flows of refugees and international isolation for both countries . Taliban leaders and Pakistani officials said this themselves recently, as did US top negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.
“The Taliban have said that they do not want to be a pariah state,” said Khalilzad on Tuesday at the Aspen Security Forum. “You want to be recognized. You want to get help. “
But this rhetorical moderation does not correspond to the facts on the ground. Although the Taliban have presented themselves as diplomats on the world stage since the peace talks with the Americans began in 2020, they are resuming their brutal practices of the past when they visit major Afghan cities such as Kandahar (Afghanistan’s second largest city after Kabul), Lashkar Gah, and Herat. This week even the US government recognized that reality. “In Spin Boldak, Kandahar, the Taliban massacred dozens of civilians in revenge killings,” tweeted the US embassy in Kabul on Monday. “These murders could be war crimes; They must be investigated and the responsible Taliban fighters or commanders brought to justice. ”
For the past decade, Pakistan has even backed the Taliban in the face of a US-led, 46-member coalition backing the elected Afghan government in Kabul. These policies are less likely to change now as the US military and NATO pull out and the Afghan government is under attack and is rapidly losing credibility. And in the face of hostile, aggressive India under its nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan is more motivated than ever to support Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan trying to offset New Delhi’s influence in the region. Islamabad fears that a strong Afghan government, in harmony with India and the West, could encircle Pakistan.
Peace talks meanwhile seem to be going nowhere as neither the Taliban nor Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are willing to negotiate with each other, and each side claims legitimacy as rightful rulers. At the heart of it all is Pakistan, which still has significant – albeit diminishing – influence with the Taliban as it is home to many of the group’s leaders and their families. In a series of talks in Washington this week, Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf said he had reached a “Meeting of Minds” with his US colleague Jake Sullivan on the need for a political agreement. “We will not accept a violent takeover of Afghanistan,” said Yusuf.
But that’s what the Taliban intend, say some longtime observers, and Islamabad shouldn’t stand in their way. “It is honestly idiotic to believe that this is somehow a gentler, gentler Taliban than the 2001 one. If anything, this is a tougher, tougher Taliban,” said former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. “After 20 years in the wilderness, the Taliban are finally getting their game back. They are not interested in talking to anyone unless it is about terms of surrender for the Afghan government. “
The Biden government seems to believe that negotiations can avoid this result. Sullivan tweeted after meeting Yusuf on July 29 that the two were discussing “the urgent need to reduce violence in Afghanistan and find a negotiated political solution to the conflict.” Little else was said by the Biden government about their talks with Islamabad. But US officials did not deny Yusuf’s claim, made by Sullivan in a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, that all Sullivan asked for was Pakistan’s help “to get all of these actors into one room to have a frank conversation “As Yusuf put it.
“The Biden government seems to have come to the conclusion that Pakistan will not or cannot put pressure on the Taliban,” said Husain Haqqani of the Hudson Institute, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. Biden didn’t even bother calling Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
And the proof of this is that Pakistan continues to play the double game it has played for a long time: advocating international unification while quietly supporting the Taliban on the ground. “Pakistan will not turn its back on the Taliban. Why should she do this now that the Taliban have “won” thanks to Pakistan’s own relentless efforts? ”Said Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “What is the US now prepared to do that it did not want to do when Pakistan’s representatives murdered our soldiers and civilians and those of our partners in Afghanistan?”
Some experts believe Islamabad would really prefer an outcome in which the Taliban agree to become part of a coalition government. In the past, the Pakistanis have worked to bring the Taliban to the peace table, said James Dobbins, who served as the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani civil servants are also increasingly concerned that the Taliban, legitimized by US negotiators, are no longer controllable and could even inspire anti-Islamabad fighters across the border.
“I think there is no real reason to doubt that their preferred solution is a government that is the Taliban, and therefore pro-Pakistani, but balanced enough to enjoy international legitimacy,” said Dobbins. “But they are not ready to make the Taliban strong to achieve this.”
Pakistan’s reasons for supporting the Taliban are clear and strategic, and go back to the end of the Cold War, Crocker said. Pakistan and the US joined forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and helped train the Afghan resistance, which consisted largely of Islamist fighters. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the United States also left the United States, leaving the Pakistanis in a civil war on their border. Pakistan believed it had no choice but to support the then dominant Taliban, which Islamabad ultimately saw as a valued Islamist counterbalance to Indian influence.
“We came back after 9/11 and the Pakistanis said, ‘We’re glad you’re back and money is coming back, and we’re happy to work with you against al-Qaeda. But if you think we’re attacking the Taliban and making them our mortal enemy, you’re crazy, ”said Crocker. “’Ultimately, you Americans are going home and we will still be here. You always do that. So you can bet that we will hedge our bets. ‘”
Still, some Pakistani civil servants fear that they may have helped create a monster in the Taliban for which Islamabad will no longer be responsible and which is spreading its extremist ideology across the border. Perhaps inspired by the Taliban’s gains, attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Pakistan have increased in recent weeks. The Pakistani military and Inter-Services intelligence have long hosted hostile Islamist militants in their tribal areas, including the Pakistani Taliban, with whom Islamabad maintains a weak and sometimes suspicious relationship for fear of terrorist attacks against Pakistan itself.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist, said many Pakistani officials have begun to voice such fears publicly, and while Pakistan is hardly innocent, Americans tend to overestimate the level of control by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. “Pakistan cannot control its own capital, let alone Afghanistan,” he said.
Many experts anticipate a bloody civil war in which Afghan moderates, who are seen as US puppets, will be massacred and women and girls will be denied the rights they were granted under the US occupation. There is already a mass exodus of interpreters and other US-allied Afghans applying for special immigrant visas. Furthermore, despite promises, the Taliban never really cut ties with al-Qaeda, and the terrorist group is likely to find new port in the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan.
Khan, the Prime Minister, certainly does not want the bad publicity associated with such an outcome, but he himself has said that containing the threat from India is paramount in Pakistan’s strategic deliberations.
Washington has long known of Pakistan’s duplicitous behavior, but the US reluctance to push Pakistan too hard is rooted in a single fear: Pakistan is a nuclear armed state. Isolating Pakistan and identifying it as a supporter of terrorism could easily lead to a much worse nightmare than it did in the late 1990s when a Pakistani smuggling network enabled Libya to obtain nuclear weapons. Even more frightening for Washington is the prospect of an unstable, isolated Pakistan collapsing and extremists taking hold of the country’s nuclear weapons.
And even US influence, when used, has proven limited – and is now even less effective as an emerging China has stepped up aid and investment in the face of US hostility towards Beijing; for China, the “economic corridor” with Pakistan is one of the largest parts of its massive Belt and Road initiative. Overall, US military aid to Pakistan fell 60 percent between 2010 and August 2017, “with no significant impact on Pakistan’s behavior,” a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution reported.
As a result, both Washington and Islamabad appear to be playing a diplomatic game. “In a dream world,” said Crocker, “a negotiated solution would be great, but that won’t happen, so the Pakistanis can safely say they are pushing for it.”