Last week, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was reported to have said that the Afghan Taliban would not allow the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS is known, to operate in Afghanistan. His statement triggered a strong reaction from Afghans, with some raising questions about how the Pakistani foreign minister was so sure that the Taliban wouldn’t allow the ISKP to function in Afghanistan, and others mocking him for acting as the group’s spokesperson.
“Once again speaking on behalf of Taliban terrorists,” tweeted Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh. “But can he explain where does he get his confidence. When was the latest meeting of GHQ [General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army] with Quetta Shura [the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership council] & HQN [Haqqani Network]?
The Pakistani government reacted swiftly, with the Pakistan Foreign Office stating that Qureshi was “misquoted.” Qureshi’s statement was apparently misreported by a leading Pakistani English daily and the Afghan media picked up the report.
“Nobody wants ISIS to grow. They [the Afghan government] don’t want it, the Taliban don’t want it, Iran doesn’t want it, [Afghanistan’s] neighbors don’t want it, and the international community doesn’t want it,” Qureshi had said at the press conference last week.
When asked about the flow of ISIS militants from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, the Pakistani foreign minister said that it was the “Afghan government’s responsibility” to monitor the situation.
What Qureshi said about the ISKP entering Afghanistan is nothing new; the group has been active in the country for years and the Afghan Taliban and the ISKP have been battling each other for control of territory. The two are seeking to undermine each other’s capacities and interests.
The Afghan response to Qureshi’s alleged statement indicates how Afghans view Pakistan, and the fact that many believe that Islamabad has significant sway over the Afghan Taliban. To such detractors, the comment was proof enough that the Taliban takes its orders from Pakistan.
So strong was the criticism of Pakistan that the country’s Foreign Office had to issue a statement clarifying that Pakistan has no favorites among the different actors in Afghanistan. “The foreign minister clearly spoke about consensus among the international community, the regional players and the Afghans themselves against the menace of terrorism. His remarks cannot in any way be misconstrued as advocacy for a particular side in the Afghan conflict,” the Foreign Office said in the statement.
Separately, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week that his government is not a spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban, and that Islamabad cannot he held responsible for the insurgent group’s actions after the withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan.
However, all of this may not be enough to convince the international community that Islamabad is not backing one side or the other in Afghanistan.
Last week, a group of individuals hoisted flags of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. “A police party rushed to the place and questioned the individuals, but didn’t register any case against them,” according to a report in Dawn newspaper.
An officer who rushed to the scene said: “since waving a flag of another country was not a crime, police didn’t take any action.” The officer equated Taliban’s flag with the flag of a country, which shows how the group continues to be perceived in Pakistan.
According to reports, there has been an increase in pro-Taliban activity in many areas of Pakistan.
“The Taliban enjoy local support in our area, but the rallies are not possible without support from authorities,” a Quetta resident told Deutsche Welle. But Pakistan’s Foreign Office has denied that rallies supporting the Taliban are taking place on Pakistani soil.
These developments do not bode well for Pakistan. It has been trying to neutralize the impression that it supports the Taliban and has favorites across the Durand Line in Afghanistan.
The world may be ready to talk to the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean that Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan or ties with the Taliban have also been accepted. Pakistan needs to take irrevocable steps to illustrate that it doesn’t support one group or faction against the others. There is no other option for Islamabad if it is serious about ensuring that its role in Afghanistan is not questioned and berated in the media.