The January 1, 2021-March 31, 2021 report submitted to the United States Congress by the Lead Inspector General For “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel” lists several specific instance of Pakistan’s pro-active military role in pushing the Taliban towards a territorial victory on the ground as the United States ends its presence.
The report repeatedly talks of the role of “foreign forces” fighting alongside the Taliban. Page 23 of the report refers to Pakistani soldiers being killed along with the Taliban in clashes with the Afghan National Security Force. On Page 25, it speaks of Pakistan’s continued outreach to the Taliban to preserve its own influence and prevent any presence of India, its adversary in the region.
The report lists the factual position on the ground, quoting local media reports and the beleaguered civil society activists who confirm Pakistan presence camouflaged by those of the Al Qaida, the ISIS and their local affiliates. The Afghans are alarmed and fear a bleak future, particularly for women and children.
The report reflects the deep reservations within the United States to the timing and the manner in which the drawdown is being executed, leaving the Afghans to the mercy of forces being supported by Pakistan.
Thus, barely hidden for a quarter of a century now, the cat is out of the bag. Pakistan is brazenly promoting the Taliban as the end-game, or rather yet another chapter, unfolds in the neighbouring Afghanistan. The support is openly diplomatic, but also military with a camouflage that the world community in the past did not known or chose to ignore, but is now resignedly accepting as the US begins to end its military presence.
Pakistan is the constant factor. The changed, or changing strategic scenario is one of its midwifing the birth of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, because the Western powers wanted stability that would allow them access to Afghanistan’s minerals and Central Asia’s hydrocarbons. The Taliban rule of five years was helmed and shepherded by Pakistan’s ISI.
The role changed, diametrically for the world to see, but only partially on the ground, when the US forced Pakistan into allowing access and supporting its “global war on terror” after 9/11. The world was smug about, and unwilling to acknowledge, where the Taliban, overthrown from Kabul, went. Today, Prime Minister Imran khan denounces Pakistan’s past rulers for engaging in what he calls “not our war.”
For the past two decades, the presence of the Taliban was known but barely acknowledged, and almost never made a factor in viewing Pakistan’s role, even as it evolved as the hub of creating and exporting Islamist extremist fighters. Voices of the Afghan people, the governments of Hamid Karzai and now Ashraf Ghani, were stifled. Protests from India whose role in supporting Afghanistan’s progress was ignored. Now, as the US ends its “forever war” that it can’t win, the regional powers – Russia and Iran – tired of the American presence, want it to go because it has created a bigger threat than Al Qaida in the ISIS. Taliban have emerged, as it were, a “lesser evil”. All this comes amidst China emerging as the region’s foremost power, ready to fill the vacuum that the US exit will cause.
The endgame is making many nervous. That includes a large section of the American security analysts, an increasing force of those in Europe. Even in Pakistan, those concerned with the way the military establishment is exulting at its ‘achievement’ of pushing the Taliban towards Kabul with global ‘consent’ are warning against the negative fall-out of putting back in power a friendly fugitive whose policies of the past remain unchanged and unrepentant.
Saner elements in the US, Europe and Pakistan see no end to conflict in Afghanistan spilling over to Pakistan in the form of refugees and drugs. China too knows the Taliban’s ascendance will encourage its own hostile Uighours in Xinjiang. Russia and Central Asia will find it increasingly difficult to contain the Islamist groups. But all are hurtling down the abyss.
Pakistan’s pro-active role in pushing the Taliban card is being resented by a beleaguered President Ghani of Afghanistan who named the various Taliban ‘Shuras’ nurtured on Pakistan soil in an interview given to German publication, Der Spiegel. In the same magazine, Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai speaks of Pakistan’s military operations in Afghanistan, although he is not as hostile as Ghani towards the Taliban, calling them “our brothers.” This is perhaps because Karzai accepts fait accompli of the US exit and hopes to play a role in the future.
The Afghan leaders are not alone. Security analysts like Muhammad Amir Rana have warned against repeating past mistakes of nurturing religious extremists who take inspiration from the Taliban.
Writing in Dawn (“Gathering Storm”, May 27, 2021) Pakistani diplomat turned academic, Touqir Husain, says: “Pakistan is not responsible for Afghanistan’s weaknesses, but cannot escape the responsibility for the Taliban’s strength.”
He sums up Pakistan’s role beautifully. “Pakistan might think it would be a good policy to stay away from the Afghan conflict but the conflict will not stay away from Pakistan. Pakistan may not have been party to the conflict but has been a part of it.”
Husain warns of domestic faultiness: “In order to fight their way to power the Taliban would therefore need all the allies they can get from wherever including Al Qaeda, the drug mafia and others with a vested interest in Afghanistan’s instability. Most importantly, the Taliban’s strategy will rely on Pakistan’s role as a hinterland where they will tap into the country’s militancy infrastructure.”
“The Taliban in power will be too independent and have reverse leverage over Pakistan where they can inspire and support extremist organisations, while a losing Taliban would be a source of instability in the border areas. That makes the Taliban a Pakistan problem too. Pakistan would have to expel them from these areas or force them to share power and be integrated in Afghan society. Inaction can draw global criticism,” Husain writes.
He is not alone in warning that a Taliban back in power will cause enough conflict at home to send out more refugees to Pakistan. At the end of the day, it may still not accept the Durand Line as the international border, settling for once and for all, the issue of Pashtun ethnic divide that bedevils both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The endgame in Afghanistan is thus only a deadly, and deathly pause, for all concerned.