Pakistan cheers Taliban out of ‘fear of India’ – despite spillover threat

·7-min read

After years of accusations that Islamabad was covertly backing the Taliban, Pakistan overtly hailed the fall of Kabul on Sunday. Experts say geostrategic concerns about its enemy India motivate Pakistan’s pro-Taliban stance – making it unlikely to change course, even amid fears that the militants’ control of Afghanistan accentuates the jihadist threat at home.

Islamabad’s reaction to the Taliban’s victory was the opposite of the despair in Western capitals: Their triumph showed that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery”, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted.

Khan’s special assistant Raoof Hasan framed the fall of Kabul – for many, a moment encapsulated by footage of hundreds of Afghans running alongside a departing US plane, desperately trying to flee – as a “virtually smooth shifting of power from the corrupt Afghan government to the Taliban”.

Perhaps most tellingly, Pakistani Climate Minister Zartaj Gul Wazir singled out the country’s perennial antagonist India as the audience for her delight, in a subsequently deleted tweet: “India gets an appropriate gift for its Independence Day”.

New Delhi’s backing of Afghanistan’s pro-Western governments under Hamid Kharzi and then Ashraf Ghani was anathema to Islamabad – as three wars and repeated skirmishes over disputed Kashmir have marked Pakistan’s relations with India since the British Raj ended in 1947.

“Under Ghani, Afghanistan was seen as particularly close to India, and this of course caused a great deal of consternation because Pakistan’s entire foreign policy is shaped by fear of being encircled by India to the east and by a pro-Indian Afghan government to the west and north,” noted Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan specialist at Chatham House in London, speaking to FRANCE 24.

Consequently, Shaikh continued, “Pakistan sees the return of the Taliban as the success of a longstanding policy designed to ensure a friendly government in Afghanistan.”

‘The wrong enemy’

Many analysts and journalists – notably then New York Times Afghanistan correspondent Carlotta Gall in her 2014 book The Wrong Enemy – have accused the Pakistani state of surreptitiously backing the Taliban, pointing the finger especially at Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Richard Holbrooke, the revered US diplomat and then special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, furnished Gall with her title shortly before his death in 2010: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country,” he said – implying that, behind the scenes, the ISI and Pakistani military were the US’s real nemeses in the region.

Pakistan pledged its support for the post-9/11 US invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban – and has repeatedly denied backing the Islamist insurgents.

However, the country’s Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed admitted in June that “Taliban families live here in Pakistan” and “sometimes they come here in [sic] hospitals to get medical treatment”.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani president from 2001 to 2008, told The Guardian in 2015: “Obviously we were looking for some groups to counter […] Indian action against Pakistan. That is where the intelligence work comes in. Intelligence being in contact with Taliban groups.”

“There’s no doubt among scholars, officials and people on the ground in Afghanistan that Pakistani intelligence agencies strongly supported the Taliban right from its inception in the 1990s, that this support continued beyond 2001, that the group’s leadership was based on Pakistani soil – and that this is an important reason why the Taliban was able to sustain itself for so many years,” Shashank Joshi, defence editor of The Economist, told FRANCE 24.

US ‘kid gloves’

Concerns persist that Pakistan is Janus-faced in the fight against jihadism. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – a Paris-based multilateral organisation combating terrorist funding and money laundering – announced in June that it was giving Pakistan another four months to enact an internationally agreed plan to stop the financing of jihadist groups on its territory.

If Islamabad does not comply, the FATF will call on its member states to add the country to its blacklist of nations shut off from global financial institutions, including North Korea and Iran.

Long before the FATF’s report, many observers were asking why recurrent allegations of Pakistani support for the Taliban never prompted US sanctions. “A lot of people remain mystified by the US kid-glove handling of Pakistan,” Shaikh put it.

Decision-makers in Washington felt their hands were tied, she explained: “The most immediate reason was that the US needed access to Pakistani territory to move supplies into Afghanistan; a more fundamental issue was US concern that the costs of alienating and destabilising a nuclear-armed power like Pakistan, containing scores of jihadist groups, were incalculable.”

‘Fear across the establishment’

But now, analysts say the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is what risks destabilising Pakistan – and that the exultation in Islamabad is myopic.

The Taliban’s win poses a security “risk” for Pakistan, a member of Khan’s cabinet admitted to the Financial Times under condition of anonymity.

The Afghan militants’ closeness to Pakistani jihadist group the TTP (also called the Pakistani Taliban) is a particular source of concern. The TTP have carried out scores of deadly attacks since their inception in the 2000s, including the infamous 2014 Peshawar school massacre.

The Taliban and the TTP are “two faces of the same coin”, Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI boss Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed acknowledged at an off-the-record briefing in July. Indeed, the Taliban reportedly freed a senior TTP commander earlier this month during their surge through Afghanistan.

“Pakistan definitely worries about the galvanising effects the Taliban’s victory will have on other Islamist militants, and especially the TTP, which was already resurging before the Taliban marched into Kabul,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, told FRANCE 24. “It’s a fear across the establishment.”

Pakistani military ‘will not budge’

Trying to contain the damage from its pullout as Afghan cities fell like dominos, the US repeatedly warned the Taliban it would face pariah status amongst the international community if it seized full control of the country. But Washington tried this approach in the 1990s and it did not diminish the Taliban’s grip over Afghanistan – with Pakistan acting as the militants’ key ally.

This time, US-Pakistan relations are at a low ebb – auguring badly for any attempt to enlist Islamabad in Washington’s plan to isolate the Taliban. Joe Biden has not spoken to Imran Khan since he became US president.

For his part, Khan told journalists last week that the US only thinks of Pakistan as “useful in the context of somehow settling this mess” it is leaving behind in Afghanistan. “I think that the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now, and I think that’s why there’s a different way of treating Pakistan now,” he continued.

Pakistan, meanwhile, sees China as its strategic partner now – as demonstrated by the intensifying flows of weapons and economic investment from the communist superpower to the Islamic Republic.

“China’s support means that Pakistan feels emboldened in standing up to what it sees as Western bullying,” Shaikh said.

But even if Taliban rule over Afghanistan leads to jihadist blowback for Pakistan, it is doubtful that Islamabad would take heed of Western cajoling and turn against the Afghan extremists, Shaikh continued: “Bajwa appears to be making the right kind of noises, saying you can’t distinguish between the Taliban and the TTP – but he must carry the institution with him and sections of the army are full of admiration for the Taliban and Pakistan’s role in ensuring their success.

“The Pakistani military has effectively ruled the country for most of its history, and it will not budge from what it sees as Pakistan’s national interest – regardless of the collateral damage.”

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