The fall of Kabul to the Taliban — a hard-line Islamist group created largely by Pakistani intelligence in the 1990s — delivers what could be a major strategic victory for Pakistan, according to national security sources who say Islamabad has spent the past 20 years carefully playing both sides of the war in Afghanistan to protect its own interests.
Pakistani officials sharply deny such claims and assert that their only goal in Afghanistan has been to help America crush terrorists and create a stable government in its volatile neighbor. However, regional experts say there is little question that elements of the Pakistani government have been playing a double game and that the Biden administration has played into Islamabad‘s hand by ceding Kabul to the Taliban.
Pakistani officials, according to high-level regional sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, have always sought to uphold an Islamist government in Kabul that would align with Pakistan‘s core geopolitical goal: preventing rival India, a Hindu-majority country, from wielding influence in Afghanistan and creating a threat in Islamabad‘s strategic backyard.
“[But] it’s not all about screwing India,” said one of the sources, who asserted that the Pakistani establishment has long dreamed of “colonizing” Afghanistan. Helping foster the rise of the Taliban more than two decades ago was driven partly by a desire to control Afghan nationalists and prevent them from rising up and challenging Pakistan, the source said.
All the while, another source said, Pakistan has sought to appease regional extremists — effectively dissuading them from attacking Pakistan — by providing a haven in what would be a hard-line Islamist society of nearby, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
It’s a risky game that now has the potential to blow up in Islamabad‘s face while creating major security headaches for the U.S. and for India and others in the region.
As with so much else, the impact of a Taliban-run Afghanistan on U.S.-Indian relations is unclear. The Taliban made headlines this week by claiming they would not tolerate activity against India under their emerging rule in Afghanistan. Still, some say Indians are privately outraged by the Biden administration’s sloppy withdrawal.
The Taliban are taking over Kabul while the administration seeks Indian support for wider U.S. strategic initiatives, such as the Quad alignment of Asian democracies aimed at countering China. New Delhi has been guarded in its reactions to developments of the past two weeks, although the Indian government has announced that Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla will visit Washington next week for meetings with the Biden administration.
Some regional analysts say the Taliban takeover will amount to a short-lived victory for Pakistan. Afghanistan, they say, could soon devolve into a pariah state hosting a widening slate of Islamic terrorist groups that ultimately seek to attack not only the West but also secular targets in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation.
Crisis in the making
It’s a foreign policy crisis in the making, say analysts, who note that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship was already fraught with tension and mistrust.
Successive U.S. administrations have relied on Islamabad as a security partner in the war against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including the Afghan- and Pakistan-based Haqqani Network. The U.S. has channeled tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in military aid to Pakistan since 2001.
U.S. sources say Pakistan‘s powerful intelligence establishment continued to aid the Taliban and provide a haven for the Haqqani Network even after the State Department listed it as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. One former high-level U.S. counterterrorism official expressed outrage when asked whether Pakistan should remain a trusted security partner.
“Pakistan may be our worst ally — not even an ally — maybe our worst partner in the world,” the former official told The Washington Times, asking for anonymity in order to speak candidly about the U.S.-Pakistani security relationship.
“They’ve been playing a double game, pretending to help the United States while funneling substantial support to the Taliban and the Haqqanis,” the former official said. “They’ve been doing that for two decades. Well, now they’ve gotten what they wanted.”
When asked what Pakistani officials say behind closed doors when U.S. diplomats confront them with such charges, the former official said, “They just flat-out lie.”
President Trump had harsh words for Pakistan in 2018. He briefly suspended roughly $1 billion in U.S. security aid to Islamabad and publicly accused Pakistani officials of “lies and deceit” and providing a haven for terrorists.
The Trump administration’s restoration of security aid underscored the vexing nature of the relationship, which hit a low point after American intelligence discovered al Qaeda founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani hideout in 2011. A clandestine U.S. Special Forces raid subsequently killed the terrorist leader at his safe house in the city of Abbottabad, less than a mile from Pakistan‘s preeminent military academy.
Pakistan the ‘arsonist’
That Washington continued to provide security aid to Islamabad after the bin Laden raid and is now likely to rely on Pakistani intelligence to exert influence over the Taliban-controlled government in Kabul is a source of growing unease in U.S. national security circles.
H.R. McMaster, a Trump administration national security adviser, said last week on MSNBC that “Pakistan acts as the arsonist and then poses as the fireman, and I think they need to pay a price for this.”
“They should suffer economic and diplomatic isolation to force them to make a choice,” he said. “I think Pakistan should be faced with a future that looks like an isolated country with a single-state sponsor, China. And you know what that looks like to me? That looks like North Korea.”
Pakistani officials bristle at the claim that Islamabad has duplicitously backed the Taliban and is somehow the strategic victor of the militant group’s takeover in Kabul. They frequently cite the number of Pakistani military and civilian casualties over the years in the government’s campaign against jihadi groups in the largely lawless border areas with Afghanistan. Pakistanis are also nearing the completion of a long border fence to improve security and prevent yet another stampede of refugees from Afghanistan.
“The events in Afghanistan over the past few weeks have clearly shown that such insinuations were completely baseless, misleading and self-serving,” Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Asad Khan told The Times on Tuesday. “Pakistan rejects all such assertions. Instead of looking for scapegoats, it is time for reflection and introspection by all in the context of Afghanistan.”
The “absurdity” of claims such as that put forward by Mr. McMaster would become clearer if “one were to look at the huge losses that Pakistan suffered on account of the conflict in Afghanistan, with over 80,000 Pakistanis dead and economy suffering over $150 billion losses,” the ambassador said.
What will become of U.S.-Pakistani relations remains a question.
Husain Haqqani, who served as Islamabad’s ambassador to the U.S. a decade ago and is now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, emphasized Afghanistan‘s geographic significance in an interview this week. He noted that Washington has long relied on Pakistan as a strategic lever vis-a-vis Afghanistan, which shares borders with Russia, China and Iran as well.
“But the U.S. still has no idea how to deal with Pakistan,” Mr. Haqqani told The Times. “The U.S. is in a bind. Going forward, Washington may not be able to manage its counterterrorism strategy in relation to Afghanistan without Pakistan.
“The problem is that the geographic situation of Afghanistan means that unless the U.S. can get a military base in Central Asia, it will be very difficult to conduct any kind of surveillance and accurate counterterrorism action without Pakistan‘s involvement,” the former ambassador said.
“On the other hand, there are those who feel that Pakistan is largely responsible for America’s failure in Afghanistan and so therefore needs to be treated with some heavy-handedness. So I think we will soon be back to old Washington debates of whether Pakistan is a reliable ally or not, instead of trying to understand what does Pakistan want and does that match with what America wants, and if Pakistan will not do what America wants, then does America have any alternatives?
“These are very difficult questions,” Mr. Haqqani said.