Leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan’s powerful military, once again see themselves on the cusp of a historic opportunity to shape Afghanistan’s future and fend off threats from ethno-nationalists and the influence of regional archrival India.
But observers say the prospect of Pakistan’s Taliban allies assuming power or becoming major powerbrokers is likely to be a hollow victory for Islamabad reminiscent of the 1990s, when a civil war followed the April 1992 demise of Afghanistan’s socialist government. The ensuing chaos forced millions of Afghans to seek shelter in Pakistan, which faced international isolation in a post-Cold War world defined by cooperation and freedom.
Islamabad’s obsession with molding the Afghan state has come at the cost of regional rivalries, sluggish economic growth, and a domestic blowback from the Islamist groups it supported to bolster the Afghan Taliban and keep India tied up in a counterinsurgency campaign in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
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“This glee of the security establishment over an imaginary victory is misplaced because it is a pyrrhic victory,” former lawmaker Farhatullah Babar told Gandhara. “Our policy toward Afghanistan really should be that it is a sovereign country and not Pakistan’s backyard.”
Babar, a senior leader of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party, has followed Islamabad’s involvement in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, when Pakistani military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq hosted Islamist Afghan mujahedin to fight Afghanistan’s Soviet occupation with American and Saudi largesse. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, General Pervez Musharraf, another military ruler, crafted a dual approach toward Afghanistan. After becoming a U.S. ally, Musharraf turned a blind eye to the Taliban’s regrouping inside Pakistan, which helped the group stage a comeback in Afghanistan.
It was this approach, Babar emphasizes, that proved instrumental in giving Islamabad a leading role in facilitating the Taliban’s negotiations with Washington, which culminated in an agreement between the two last year and reinforced notions that Islamabad will once again have a say in who rules Kabul.
“The dilemma of Pakistan’s security establishment is that it’s an economically impoverished country seeking to project its powers beyond borders through nonstate actors under the umbrella of nuclear capability,” he said, alluding to Islamabad’s ties with the Afghan Taliban.
Babar says he wants his country to first address its domestic crises, including the dire economic straits it has landed in. “The reality of Pakistan today is that it is a politically fragmented and ethnically divided country,” he said. “A country with so many fault lines must first put its own house in order before looking across the border.”
The head of Pakistan’s military, the country’s most powerful leader, echoed this sentiment in a speech earlier this month. Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said Pakistan has realized that “unless our own house is in order, nothing good could be expected from outside.”
He told a conference in Islamabad that his country’s role in the Afghan peace process is evidence of Pakistan’s “goodwill and understanding of it global and moral obligations.”
Bajwa pledged his commitment to a lasting and enduring peace both domestically and regionally, outlining an economic roadmap to boost regional trade and connectivity path based on “noninterference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighboring and regional countries.”
Resilient Taliban Ties
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, says that despite Bajwa’s promises Islamabad still makes a show of supporting the international community while helping the Taliban gain an upper hand.
“We have heard a lot about Pakistan being active in helping the U.S. end this war. But we don’t know what it is exactly that Pakistan has been doing,” he asked. “There has been no transparency at all.”
Rashid, the author of several books about Afghanistan’s wars, says Islamabad’s most meaningful contribution toward Afghan peace would be to push the Taliban back across the border. “They should end the Taliban’s safe sanctuary in Pakistan because it is creating a lot of problems for Pakistan and its policy,” he told Gandhara.
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Pakistan has mostly denied sheltering the Taliban, but after the 2016 killing of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in a U.S. drone attack in the southwestern province of Balochistan in May 2016, Islamabad grudgingly acknowledged the Taliban’s presence in the country.
Ayesha Siddiqa, an author and expert on the Pakistani military, says Islamabad wants to oust Afghan President Ashraf Ghani but isn’t entirely on board with the Taliban gaining power. Earlier this month, Pakistan joined the United States, Russia, and China to declare they “do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” as the Taliban’s hard-line regime was called, which is still the formal name of the group.
Siddiqa says Islamabad risks becoming increasingly dependent on the militants. “The military believes the Taliban are the only Pashtuns it can rely on,” she told Gandhara. “It has not invested in modern Afghan civil society and, therefore, there is this increased dependence,” she added, suggesting the Taliban and smaller Islamist groups are Islamabad’s only allies within the Afghan political spectrum.
She argues Islamabad will face a domestic blowback. “You can’t escape the crosscurrents,” she noted. “In the past, this has meant increased religious intolerance in Pakistan. Once the Taliban dominate politics, there is a possibility they will have an influence on Pakistani society, as well.”
Pakistan has already paid a high price for supporting the Taliban. The regime’s demise in late 2001 pushed Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Central Asian, and Pakistani militants to seek shelter in Pakistan’s western borderlands. Many of these militants eventually turned on Islamabad, and some, like Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, gained control of large swathes of territories. Tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians were killed and maimed in attacks claimed by these groups. Thousands more were killed in counterterrorist operations, which also displaced millions for years.
Siddiqa says Islamabad is likely to push the Taliban toward a power-sharing agreement in order to moderate its influence. “Pakistan doesn’t want to see Afghanistan turn into a pariah state like in the 1990s. And it wants Western powers and China to invest in the country to minimizes Pakistan’s burden if it does support the Taliban,” she noted.
Other neighbors of Afghanistan want a say, too, Siddiqa adds. “Iran is going to contest,” she said. “As the Americans get ready to leave, Iran will engage with the Taliban and other forces, so Pakistan’s position will be challenged.”
In an interview with Afghan TV in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said it would offer the help of its
Division, an Iranian militia comprising mainly Haraza Shi’ite fighters from Afghanistan, in fighting the Islamic State militants. Hundreds if not thousands of Fatemiyoun members have died fighting in Syria on Iran’s behalf in the past decade. To some, Zarif’s statement was a reminder that just like Islamabad, Tehran also has armed allies inside Afghanistan.
For Islamabad, New Delhi is always the main competitor. Pakistan bristled at the United States’ recent proposal to invite India to a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Turkey to adopt a “unified approach” in regional backing for a possible power-sharing agreement among Afghans.
Pakistan maintains that New Delhi uses Afghan soil to foment unrest in Pakistan – claims that India rejects and counters by saying Pakistan sponsors terrorism.
“India does not have any interest in peace in Afghanistan,” Moeed Yousaf, a special adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, said recently. “If there is peace in Afghanistan, India will lose its influence there.”
Rashid argues that India cannot match Pakistan’s influence or the lengths to which Islamabad is prepared to go to secure its interests in Afghanistan. “Certainly, no regional peace settlement can happen without India’s involvement, and it’s far better that Pakistan goes along with it,” he noted.
Babar agrees. He says Islamabad’s paranoia about New Delhi’s influence is misplaced. “The commonalities and the bonds between Afghanistan and Pakistan are so deep-rooted that India cannot replace Pakistan in Afghanistan.”
Given Pakistan’s deep-seated involvement in Afghanistan, Islamabad is unlikely to leave what it views as its core security and strategic interests to the goodwill of regional rivals.
Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.