Future of Pakistan-Taliban relations

The Taliban have time and again let Pakistan down, writes Arwin Rahi

Future of Pakistan-Taliban relations
The February 29, 2020 deal between the Taliban and the United States has been welcomed by segments of Pakistani society as a Taliban victory, hoping that a future Taliban-influenced Afghan government will be pro-Pakistan. While it is yet to be determined how, when, and to what extent the Taliban will become part of the Afghan government, pinning any hopes on the Taliban to be pro-Pakistan is unrealistic and premature. Here’s why.

First, Pakistan’s ability to convince Afghans to work closely with Pakistan has been limited. During the Afghan jihad, for more than a decade, Pakistan hosted seven Afghan Mujahedin parties. As the Afghan jihad was coming to a close, fewer and fewer of the Mujahedin leaders remained interested in listening to Pakistan. For instance, in the early 1990s, Pakistan’s multiple efforts to bring the Afghan Mujahedin together to form a government of national reconciliation failed, as did the ISI’s effort, upon request from the Soviet Union, to secure the release of Soviet prisoners of war from Mujahedin captivity.

Second, the argument that under the Taliban, Pakistan had obtained strategic depth in Afghanistan is inaccurate. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Taliban’s time in power between 1994 and 2001 suggests that it was the Taliban that had obtained strategic depth in Pakistan, not the other way around. In addition to bestowing diplomatic recognition upon the Taliban, Pakistan delivered ammunition, fuel, and technical assistance to them. Pakistani madrassas provided the Taliban with foot soldiers.
Unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban today are neither internationally isolated nor only dependent on Pakistan for survival

The Taliban would openly, without having to obtain visa, cross into Pakistan to seek medical treatment, visit family members, or shop. Similarly, smuggling and drug trafficking continued unabated between the two countries, as did the influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. Support for the Taliban also further inspired extremism in Pakistan, perhaps an unintended consequence of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

The Taliban, however, time and again let Pakistan down. A few examples below will suffice to drive the point home. Despite Pakistan’s attempts, the Taliban refused to recognise the Durand Line as an international border with Pakistan, showcasing Pakistan’s limited influence on the Taliban. Similarly, the Taliban ignored General Musharraf’s message, delivered by his interior minister Moinuddin Haider personally to Mullah Omar, to not destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan province. The Taliban proceeded with destroying centuries’ old Buddha statues in March 2001.

Likewise, in 1997, the Taliban had entered Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, based on an agreement with a local strongman General Malik, whereby Malik would have some sort of autonomy. When Pakistan asked the Taliban to honor the agreement to avoid bloodshed, the latter refused. As a result, the Taliban were massacred in Mazar-i-Sharif by ethnic Uzbeks and Hazaras. More importantly, after 9/11 the Taliban refused to comply with Pakistan’s request to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US, despite General Musharraf’s sending director-general of the ISI General Ahmed Mahmud to Kandahar to personally relay the message to Mullah Omar. So much for Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Third, Taliban members who are no longer actively fighting but still have contacts with the group are critical of Pakistan. For instance, former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawwakil once stated that Pakistani prisons were “worse than Bagram and Guantanamo.” Another close confidant of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s, Tayeb Agha, remarked to the Americans “Yes, we live there [Pakistan], but we are an independent movement, and we don’t respond to what Pakistan wants to do.” In a 2016 letter to the new Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, Tayeb Agha went a step further and suggested that the Taliban break relations with Pakistan.

But the most ardent critic of Pakistan amongst the Taliban is Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef—a founding member of the Taliban movement, a close confidant of Mulla Omar’s, and the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan—whom the Musharraf government handed over to the US, despite the fact that Mr Zaeef had diplomatic immunity. Zaeef’s memoir named My Life with the Taliban is a catalogue of grievances against Pakistan. Below is a short excerpt from Mr Zaeef’s book:

“Pakistan, which plays a key role in Asia, is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody. They deceive the Arabs under the guise of Islamic nuclear power, saying that they are defending Islam and Islamic countries. They milk America and Europe in the alliance against terrorism, and they have been deceiving Pakistani and other Muslims around the world in the name of the Kashmiri jihad. But behind the curtain, they have been betraying everyone.”

Furthermore, the present chief Taliban negotiator in Qatar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, having been arrested by Pakistani authorities in Karachi’s Baldia town in 2010, spent nearly a decade in a Pakistani prison, which Mutawakil described “worse than Bagram and Guantanamo.” Mr Baradar was released from prison upon US request in late 2018. Once Baradar returns to Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be pro-Pakistan, or will allow Pakistan to influence his views and actions.

Fourth, unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban today are neither internationally isolated nor only dependent on Pakistan for survival. Today, the Taliban have contacts with all the major stakeholders in Afghanistan, including the US. Given that during the Taliban’s reign Pakistan was one of the three countries that recognised them, Pakistan was in a stronger position to extract concessions from the Taliban. But Pakistan couldn’t accomplish much. Pakistan’s earlier failures to make the Taliban comply when they were completely isolated from the outside world don’t presage good news for Pakistan’s prospective expectations from the Taliban.

Fifth, like their predecessors the Mujahedin, the Taliban think they defeated a superpower. In Mujahedin’s case it was the former Soviet Union; in Taliban’s case it’s the US. As such, it’s hard for the Taliban (like it was hard for the Mujahedin) to do Pakistan’s bidding once they cease to exist as insurgents and assume power in Kabul. From their perspective, these groups stood up to the superpowers of their time and overcame them. Now, there’s no need to sacrifice their “independence” and be pro-Pakistan. It is an extremely important point that usually goes unnoticed in Pakistan, where the expectation has been that the Mujahedin and Taliban be pro-Pakistan.

Sixth and final, due to the historic Pashtunistan and Durand Line issues with Pakistan, successive Afghan governments have had to demonstrate some degree of public disagreement with Pakistan to garner domestic support. The Taliban will be no exception. The Taliban may be religious fanatics, but they are also a nationalist movement. Therefore, associating any hopes that the Taliban’s coming to power, either in a power-sharing agreement or through a complete takeover of the government, will provide Pakistan with a friendly government in Kabul is an unfounded claim.

Instead of waiting for a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, what Afghanistan and Pakistan need is comprehensive agreements on all of the following outstanding issues: First, the status (or repatriation) of Afghan refugees in Pakistan; second, Afghan insurgents’ presence in Pakistan and Pakistan’s concerns about anti-Pakistan insurgents’ presence in Afghanistan; third, effective border management; fourth, waters treaty regulating the use of waters from Kabul and Kunar rivers; fifth, an updated trade and transit agreement. Without resolving these issues, relations will continue to remain tense between Kabul and Islamabad, which in turn will make it harder for a pro-Pakistan government to emerge in Kabul.

The writer is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at rahiarwin@gmail.com

Arwin Rahi is a former advisor to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.