For two decades, a large part of the Pakistani security establishment rooted for the Taliban in the Afghan war. But now that the Taliban are taking over vast tracts of the country and seem to be on the cusp of seizing power, panic is spreading through Pakistan’s halls of power, writes Saeed Shah, the Islamabad correspondent of Wall Street Journal.
“Ever since the 2001 U.S. invasion ousted the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Kabul, Pakistan’s powerful military has unofficially provided carefully calibrated support to the group, allowing Afghan insurgents to operate from its territory. Pakistan wanted to bolster the Taliban as a counter to the influence of its enemy—India—in Afghanistan and to have a potent proxy there after a U.S. departure. Formally an American ally since 2001, Pakistan’s government denies backing the Taliban, but says it has some limited influence over the group,” Shah says.
With the Taliban sweeping through a third of Afghanistan’s districts following the U.S. military withdrawal and surrounding the country’s major cities, Pakistani authorities have to grapple with the unintended consequences of their policies. A total takeover by the Taliban or a new civil war in Afghanistan would backfire against Islamabad’s national interests, senior Pakistani officials say.
“We are so closely intertwined with Afghanistan, ethnically, religiously, tribally, that whenever there is civil war, Pakistan gets sucked in automatically,” said Pakistan’s former defense minister, retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Lodhi. “Civil war [in Afghanistan] is the last thing that Pakistan would like to happen.”
The fear in Pakistan is of a flood of refugees across the porous border that would add to the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees already living in the country. Worse, a triumphant Afghan Taliban would galvanize Pakistan’s own Islamist militants whose power has waned as a result of successive military operations in the country’s tribal border areas.
“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” a senior Pakistani official told the WSJ. “War does not suit us at all. We’ve seen it for 40 years.”
Islamabad says it no longer wants to be the main backer of a pariah regime, as it was when the Taliban controlled Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Instead, Pakistan is aiming for a negotiated peace settlement that would see the Taliban handed a major share of political power in Kabul, along with international legitimacy and funding.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and politicians in Doha, Qatar, have largely stalled, with Afghan officials saying the insurgency seeks to use negotiations to legitimize its military conquests.
“Pakistan is a bit stuck,” said Laurel Miller, a former acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who now heads the Asia program at the International Crisis Group.
“The better outcome for Pakistan is that the Taliban go far enough militarily to dominate terms in a negotiation, but not so far that they achieve a military victory and try to rule monopolistically,” she told WSJ.
After years of publicly railing against American strategy in Afghanistan and saying there is no military solution, Pakistani officials now complain that the U.S. exited Afghanistan too quickly. Pakistan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, said this month that Islamabad had implored the Biden administration to pause its military pullout until a political settlement in Afghanistan was reached.
“The ground situation is moving faster than anyone can plan for,” Mr. Yusuf said on Pakistani television. “We want our relations with Afghanistan to be OK, and their soil not used against Pakistan. If that happens, there are no favorites there for Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s concerns are often met with cynicism by Western officials. They point to two decades of Islamabad’s denials that it backs the Taliban when such support appeared to be in plain sight to those in Kabul and Washington. Some foreign officials say that, despite its public statements to the contrary, Pakistan still seeks a full Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. In Pakistan, where many fear criticizing the military, a few voices agree.
“Pakistan’s favorites in Afghanistan are only the demolition squad, the Taliban,” said Bushra Gohar, formerly a lawmaker from a secular Pashtun nationalist political party in Pakistan. “This is a suicidal policy.”
The negotiating process with the Taliban, which resulted in the February 2020 agreement to withdraw U.S. forces, showed the degree of Pakistan’s involvement with the Afghan insurgents. Taliban representatives in Doha would regularly fly to Pakistan to consult their leadership, drawing the Taliban’s presence out in the open. Last month, Pakistan’s interior minister said families of senior Taliban leaders live in the suburbs of Islamabad.
Pakistan has been embroiled in the cycles of war in Afghanistan for more than 40 years, backing successive jihadist groups—first against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s—with U.S. support. Once the Soviets left and the civil war began, Islamabad sponsored Afghan proxies in part to keep out the influence of New Delhi, fearing being sandwiched between a hostile Afghanistan and a belligerent India. Pakistan’s support settled on the Taliban when the Islamist movement emerged in the mid-1990s. Pakistan views a friendly Afghan government as a strategic priority.
Islamabad has accused Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies of harboring Pakistani insurgents—both Baloch separatists and radical jihadists—and allowing them to launch cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. Kabul and New Delhi deny the accusation.
Getting the Taliban to agree to serious power-sharing negotiations with Kabul will require “stiff resistance” from Afghan government forces, a Pakistani official said, pointing to the insurgents’ recent rapid advances. So far, no such resistance has been forthcoming, with thousands of Afghan government troops surrendering and handing over their weapons to the Taliban in recent weeks, the Wall Street Journal says.
“When [the Taliban] think they’ve won the war, it is very difficult, from Pakistan’s point of view, to make them come to some kind of political settlement,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said this month. Still, he added: “We want there to be a political settlement at all costs.”