The United States is banking on Islamabad to broker successful peace talks with the Taliban. That’s not likely to happen.
Michael HirshAugust 6, 2021, 12:16 PM
In a gamble pitting hope against history, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team are banking that the resurgent Taliban will agree to a negotiated peace deal in Afghanistan and the militant group’s longtime state sponsor, Pakistan, will press them to share power with the Afghan government.
But many experts say such hopes are delusional, and history will likely triumph in the end: Pakistan and the Taliban leadership—which is still headquartered in Pakistan—will continue to have each other’s backs on the battlefield as well as at the negotiating table. In short, Pakistan wants the Taliban to win—or at least is unwilling to do much to prevent this from happening.
“Pakistan is supporting the Taliban’s offensive. Without Pakistani logistical support, the Taliban could not undertake the massive nationwide attack it is pursuing,” said Bruce Riedel, who served as a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to four U.S. presidents. “The ISI [Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service] is already pleased it has ejected all the foreign troops from Afghanistan. The goal now is to induce panic in the Afghan government and army.”
The Biden team’s argument is that, even with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither the Taliban nor Islamabad desire a repeat of the bloody history that led up to 9/11: Taliban atrocities, sanctions, massive refugee flows, and international isolation for both countries. Taliban leaders and Pakistani officials have said so themselves recently, as has the United States’ lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad.
“The Taliban said they do not want to be a pariah state,” Khalilzad said Tuesday at the Aspen Security Forum. “They want to be recognized. They want to receive assistance.”
But this rhetorical moderation doesn’t square with the facts on the ground. Despite presenting themselves as diplomats on the world stage since peace talks with the Americans began in 2020, the Taliban are resuming their brutal past practices as they move into major Afghan cities, such as Kandahar (Afghanistan’s second biggest city after Kabul), Lashkar Gah, and Herat. This week, even the U.S. government acknowledged that reality. “In Spin Boldak, Kandahar, the Taliban massacred dozens of civilians in revenge killings,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul tweeted on Monday. “These murders could constitute war crimes; they must be investigated & those Taliban fighters or commanders responsible held accountable.”
Over the past decade or so, Pakistan supported the Taliban even in the face of a U.S.-led, 46-nation coalition backing up the elected Afghan government in Kabul. That policy is less likely to change now, with the U.S. military and NATO leaving and the Afghan government under assault and losing credibility fast. And faced with a hostile, aggressive India under its nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, Pakistan is more motivated than ever to support Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan seeking to counterbalance New Delhi’s influence in the region. Islamabad fears a strong Afghan government aligned with India and the West could spell the encirclement of Pakistan.
Peace talks, meanwhile, appear to be going nowhere, since neither the Taliban nor Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are willing to negotiate with each other, with each side claiming legitimacy as rightful rulers. In the middle of it all sits Pakistan, which still has significant—if waning—influence with the Taliban, since it harbors many of the group’s leaders and their families. In a series of talks in Washington this week, Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf said he reached a “meeting of minds” with his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan, on the need for a political settlement. “We will not accept a forceful takeover” of Afghanistan, Yusuf asserted.
Yet that is what the Taliban intend, some longtime observers say, and Islamabad is not likely to stand in their way. “It’s frankly idiotic to think that this is somehow a softer, gentler Taliban than the one of 2001. If anything this is a harder, harsher Taliban,” said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. “After 20 years in the wilderness, the Taliban are finally getting their game back. They’re not interested in talking to anybody unless it’s about terms of surrender for the Afghan government.”
The Biden administration appears to believe it can avoid this outcome through negotiation. Sullivan tweeted after his July 29 meeting with Yusuf that the two “discussed the urgent need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.” Little else has been said by the Biden administration about its discussions with Islamabad. But U.S. officials did not deny Yusuf’s contention, made in a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, that all Sullivan asked for was Pakistan help “get all these actors in one room to have a sincere conversation,” as Yusuf put it.
“The Biden administration seems to have reached the conclusion that Pakistan will not, or cannot, pressure the Taliban,” said Husain Haqqani of the Hudson Institute, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. Biden has not even bothered to call Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the phone.
And the evidence is Pakistan continues to engage in the double game it has long played: pleading for an international settlement while quietly backing the Taliban on the ground. “Pakistan is not going to turn its back on the Taliban. Why would it do so now that the Taliban have ‘won’ thanks to Pakistan’s own unrelenting efforts?” said Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “What is the U.S. willing to do now that it wasn’t willing to do when Pakistan’s proxies were murdering our soldiers and civilians and those of our partners in Afghanistan?”
Some experts believe Islamabad genuinely would prefer an outcome where the Taliban agree to become part of a coalition government. In the past, the Pakistanis have worked to get the Taliban to the peace table, said James Dobbins, who served as special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani civilian officials are also increasingly concerned the Taliban, having been legitimized by U.S. negotiators, are no longer controllable and may even inspire anti-Islamabad militants across the border.
“I think there’s no real reason to doubt that their preferred solution is a government that includes the Taliban and so is pro-Pakistan but is sufficiently balanced that it enjoys international legitimacy,” Dobbins said. “But they’re not prepared to strong-arm the Taliban to get this.”
Pakistan’s reasons for supporting the Taliban are clear and strategic, dating back to the end of the Cold War, Crocker said. Pakistan and the United States were allied against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and helped train the Afghan resistance, which largely consisted of Islamist militants. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the United States left as well, leaving the Pakistanis with a civil war on their border. Pakistan felt it had no choice but to support the then-dominant Taliban, which Islamabad eventually came to view as a valued Islamist offset to Indian influence.
“After 9/11, we came back, and the Pakistanis said, ‘We’re glad you’re back and money is flowing back in, and we’re happy to work with you against al Qaeda. But if you think we’re going to turn on the Taliban and make them our mortal enemy, you’re crazy,’” Crocker said. “‘At the end of the day, you Americans are going home, and we’re still going to be here. That’s what you guys always do. So you can bet we’re hedging our bets.’”
Still, some Pakistani civilian officials fear they may have helped create a monster in the Taliban that will no longer answer to Islamabad and is spreading its extremist ideology back across the border. Perhaps inspired by Taliban gains, attacks inside Pakistan by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, an Islamist terrorist group, have increased in recent weeks. The Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency have long harbored such hostile Islamist militants in their tribal regions, including the Pakistani Taliban, with which Islamabad maintains a tenuous and sometimes mistrustful relationship, fearing terror acts against Pakistan itself.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist, said many Pakistani officials have begun to express such fears publicly, and although Pakistan is hardly innocent, Americans tend to overstate the degree of control exercised by the Pakistani military and intelligence service. “Pakistan can’t control its own capital city much less Afghanistan,” he said.
Many experts expect a bloody civil war where Afghan moderates, deemed U.S. puppets, are slaughtered wholesale and women and girls are denied the rights they were granted under the U.S. occupation. Already, there is a mass exodus of interpreters and other U.S-allied Afghans seeking special immigrant visas. Beyond that, the Taliban have never really severed their relationship with al Qaeda despite promising to do so, and the terrorist group is likely to find a new harbor in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan.
Khan, the prime minister, certainly doesn’t want the bad publicity associated with such an outcome, but he himself has said curtailing India’s threat is paramount in Pakistan’s strategic considerations.
Washington has long known of Pakistan’s two-faced behavior, but U.S. reluctance to push Pakistan too hard is rooted in a singular fear: Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state. To isolate Pakistan and identify it as a supporter of terrorism could easily create a nightmare much worse than what happened in the late 1990s, when a Pakistani smuggling network enabled Libya to obtain nuclear weapon designs. Even more frightening to Washington is the prospect that an unstable, isolated Pakistan could fracture, and extremists might get hold of the country’s nuclear weapons.
And even U.S. leverage, when used, has proven limited—and is even less effective now that a rising China has increased aid and investment in the face of U.S. hostility toward Beijing; for China, the “economic corridor” with Pakistan is one of the biggest pieces of its massive Belt and Road Initiative. Overall, U.S. military aid to Pakistan decreased by 60 percent between 2010 and August 2017 “without a significant impact on Pakistan’s behavior,” a 2018 Brookings Institution study reported.
As a result, both Washington and Islamabad appear to be playing a game of diplomatic pretense. “In a dream world,” Crocker said, “a negotiated settlement would be great, but that isn’t going to happen, so the Pakistanis are safe in saying that’s what they’re pushing for.”