As the tragedy of the Taliban onslaught in Afghanistan unfolded over the past few weeks, culminating with their entrance into Kabul on August 15, some could have asked how the group achieved such success on its own. One of the many reasons is that the Taliban were never alone. They have always been supported by Pakistan – the country’s successive governments, its armed forces, its military intelligence. The Taliban leadership has long been based in Pakistan, even when Islamabad was receiving U.S. money and weapon systems for helping Washington fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The evidence to prove this collusion is strong and one does not to reach far into recent history to find instances of it. In July 2021, a famous Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, declared that Taliban fighters not only had sanctuary in Pakistan, but even recuperated in Pakistani hospitals (see this interview, given to Nisad Hajari for the Print). And as Aqil Shah wrote few days ago for Carnegie:
The Taliban can freely move men and materiel into Afghanistan [from Pakistan][…] and communicate with their operational commanders in Afghanistan; in some instances, they have even used Pakistani passports to travel abroad. They also reportedly own lucrative real estate holdings and have significant business interests in the Pakistani cities of Karachi, Peshawar, and Quetta.
Now, as it appears that the Taliban are taking full power in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government will no longer have to pretend. It is thus worth following its changing rhetoric to hold the establishment in Islamabad accountable. As the Taliban marched across Afghanistan in recent weeks, Pakistani establishment figures made various comments that put on display Islamabad’s diplomatic end goals, and the narrative it dressed its politics in.
It should be stressed that Pakistani politicians and officials did not directly defend the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, both Pakistan’s national security adviser and foreign minister stressed that their government supported a peaceful resolution to the war in Afghanistan, and added that the process should be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” These were noble-sounding words, and statements on which all stakeholders for years have agreed, including other foreign powers. Both Pakistani officials also stressed that they would accept any agreement that the Afghans work out between themselves. Moreover, a statement issued by Pakistan’s National Security Committee after the fall of Kabul (and described by Umair Jamal in an article for Business Recorder) confirmed Pakistan’s position of non-interference in Afghan affairs.
But what seemed to be a gold coating of splendid neutrality falls away on further examination, shattered by other statements made.
When questioned more directly about their attitude toward both the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s government, the comments by Pakistani politicians turned out to be built on suggestions and evasions. Together, these formed a mist-covered narrative that redirected part of the blame and diluted responsibility. The scattered remarks may be generally grouped into two categories:
(1) Attempts to weaken global criticism of the Taliban. One case of this were comments made suggesting that Taliban were not the only force responsible for the rising levels of violence – a statement made by Pakistan’s foreign minister in June (in an interview with Lotfullah Najafizada for TOLO News). Another was the claim that during the current offensive the Afghan population welcomed the Taliban, rather than opposed them – a declaration uttered by the Pakistani prime minister’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf (in an interview with Becky Anderson for CNN). Similar statements put a part of the blame for rising violence on the Islamic State or India.
(2) Attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government. These were much more vocal than the hazy statements on the Taliban. Yusuf questioned Ghani’s mandate to rule in the same interview mentioned above. Two days later, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul Wazir went much further by cheering the fall of the Kabul government as soon as the Taliban entered the capital. Even though Gul Wazir deleted her tweet within an hour, the next day the choir was joined by the chief conductor himself: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a speech on a seemingly unrelated subject, recorded by Samaa TV less than 24 hours after the Taliban sat down in Kabul’s presidential palace, Khan declared that “just now they have broken the chains of slavery in Afghanistan.”
As usual, former Pakistani military officers were even more direct and radical in their statements than the country’s politicians. Abdul Qayyum, a retired lieutenant general, declared that it was the U.S. which was responsible for breaking international law and having a “rogue army,” and that Islamabad should be “the first country in the world to recognize the new government in Afghanistan.” (The statement was published after Ghani’s government capitulated, as quoted in an article by Shakeel Ahmed for Dawn.) Another former general, Naeem Khalid Lodhi, tweeted that:
Taliban Victories are not Military […] but Political. […] There is little bloodshed. Afghan Taliban apparently enjoying local support. People seem to be fed up of Occupation Forces and corrupt puppet regime.
Considering these two approaches together allows us to see the crux of the matter, and to predict what ground Islamabad is laying for future steps. If Pakistani politicians expressed doubts about Ghani’s mandate to rule, if they were openly glad to see his government collapse, and if they hinted at the Taliban’s mandate by way of their relatively easy military success, they have no right to claim neutrality; their statements contradict the promise that they would accept any decision the Afghan people would make.
Ghani’s position has indeed been shaky and questioned by many (not just in Pakistan), and his electoral success had been contested. But with regards to the peace process the essential factor was that for years the Taliban refused to negotiate directly with the Kabul government, which they declared to be a puppet installed by a foreign power. Thus, Pakistan’s attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government played into the hands of the Taliban. In other words: Pakistan indeed supported an “Afghan-led” process, but provided it would be led that by their Afghans.
That the Islamabad government is still calling for a peaceful solution, even though the war seems to be over, is also a cunning approach. Having so long pretended not to support the Taliban, Pakistan’s government as a whole now wisely chooses not to simply say: “These are our people, we are happy to see them win, and we will endorse their government.”
What happened in Kabul on August 15 appears to have been much more of a one-sided capitulation than a peace settlement, but Pakistan will present it as the latter. For this to happen, it was essential for the Taliban not to simply storm the capital and physically eliminate the government (this they have also avoided for other reasons, of course) but to sit down for final talks in Ghani’s palace, or something like that. Since the Taliban had the capital surrounded, it was perhaps nothing more than an acceptance of Ghani’s giving up and stepping down. But for the sake of Pakistan’s narrative this will be enough to declare that the peaceful transition of power has been initiated.
Moreover, as a few military commanders and warlords did stand down and negotiate surrenders, the Taliban may offer them positions. This will allow Pakistan to declare of the future regime that it is the inclusive government they wished for Afghanistan to have, a representation of various stakeholders. The process of accommodating a few turncoats to the victors’ new administration may be presented by Pakistan as a national unity government, or in similar terms. In the end, Islamabad is more than likely to recognize Taliban rule in Kabul as legitimate, and to establish diplomatic relations with it (as it did in the past). But Pakistan will also claim the government was formed thanks to peaceful negotiations and that it represents more than just the Taliban. This, in turn, will be Pakistan’s line of defense against international repercussions, such as diplomatic criticism or the prospect of being sanctioned by multilateral financial institutions for supporting a terrorist organization.