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Great Games~II

The ISI‘s close links with the insurgency in Afghanistan were not limited to giving sanctuary to the insurgents and giving them financial aid, military training and weapons. There are instances to show that Pakistani Army personnel even directly participated in the insurgency against the Afghan government.


Pakistan’s ISI was able to exert influence on the strategic decision-making of the Taliban and on their field operations as its representatives participated in meetings of the ‘Quetta Shura’. They also participated in meetings of the Haqqani Command Council and exercised even greater influence on the Haqqani faction led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, with its headquarters in Waziristan, from where it carried out cross-border terrorist activities in Afghanistan and was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul and its neighbourhood, including attacks on the Indian Embassy (in 2008 and 2009), the US Embassy (in September 2011) and the car bomb explosion near the International Security Forces headquarters near Kabul.

According to both the Taliban and Haqqani commanders, the ISI controlled some of the most violent insurgent units, some of which were apparently based in Pakistan. What is more, although the Taliban has an indigenous impetus, the ISI tried to circumscribe Taliban’s ‘strategic autonomy’ by arresting leaders ~ such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar ~ who wanted to talk to the Afghan government. The Haqqani faction allied with the Taliban when the first Taliban government was set up in Afghanistan (1996-2001) and Jalaluddin Haqqani ~ who was a valuable CIA asset in the 1980s ~ became a Minister in the government. The ties between the two groups were cemented in 2015 when Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin, became the Deputy leader of the Taliban.
Pakistan was clearly playing a double game. As an ally of the US in its fight against terror, it received substantial military and economic aid ~ between 2002 and 2011, the US Congress approved $18 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan ~ but at the same time it was providing sanctuary, financial help, military training and weapons to the Afghan insurgents. This was known to the US for quite some time, although Pakistan denied this. Pakistan acknowledged the existence of the ‘Quetta Shura’ for the first time in December 2009 and in an apparent change in policy arrested nine out of 18 senior members of the Shura in February 2010. Mullah Baradar was arrested in a joint operation by the ISI and the CIA. But why this sudden change of heart?

According to some analysts, it was done under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, two of Pakistan’s principal financiers. But possibly this was a placatory move to keep under wraps Pakistan’s real designs. Islamabad, as noted earlier, tried to prevent any independent move by the Taliban leaders ~ such as Mullah Baradar ~ to open negotiations with the Afghan government, while for others, more amenable to ISI’s persuasions, the arrest was a ruse. According to Matt Waldman, President Zardari told senior Taliban leaders ~ who were arrested by the government ~ ‘you are our people’ and apparently assured them that they had his support. He also authorised their release from prison. Mullah Baradar, who later negotiated with the US government representatives in Doha, was kept in prison till 2018 (and reportedly even tortured) and was released at the request of then President Donald Trump.

The ISI’s close links with the insurgency in Afghanistan were not limited to giving sanctuary to the insurgents and giving them financial aid, military training and weapons. There are instances to show that Pakistani Army personnel even directly participated in the insurgency against the Afghan government. On 22 June 2014, the Afghan Defence Minister alleged that Pakistani soldiers, dressed as civilians, killed three Afghan troops in the Dangam district of Kunar, an allegation that was rejected by the Pakistanis. The former Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh accused Pakistan of helping the Taliban to fight the ‘Resistance’ forces in Panjshir; and according to the ‘Resistance’ leaders, Pakistan was providing air support to the Taliban and some special forces were air-dropped to fight along with them, though Pakistan has denied this. Around 250 Pakistani Army officers of different ranks were reportedly involved in running the Taliban.

On 17 August, two days after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, a major general-ranked ISI officer reportedly reached Kabul in an effort to bring together loose elements of Al Qaeda, Da’esh, ISKP, Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi forces under the integrated command of the LeT and JeM, according to a report in The Week. Both the LeT and the JeM have presence in Afghanistan and the JeM was regularly providing cadres ~ trained in Peshawar ~ to help the Taliban. What is more, when different Taliban groups were fighting among themselves over the formation of the new government, the Director General of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed rushed to Kabul to broker an agreement between the warring factions that would help form a government that would be amenable to Islamabad. No wonder, Imran Khan was the first to hail the victory of the Taliban, calling it liberation from foreign yoke. What about the US? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, with the avowed purpose of tracking down Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden (OBL) and his close associates who had taken refuge in east Afghanistan’s Tora Bora caves close to Pakistan’s tribal belt and were being protected by the Taliban government. After the fall of the Taliban government, an opportunity came for the US to capture/ kill Osama and his associates but that was lost primarily because of the dithering of President Bush and his administration over the issue of sending reinforcements.

The Tora Bora caves had been well fortified by Osama and his associates during the Soviet invasion; but the USA had sent a force of 100 soldiers, who were expected to enlist the support of local Afghans. Realising the impossibility of accomplishing this task with this force (even after supportive heavy aerial bombing of the caves by US planes), in late November Henry Crumption, the senior CIA officer on counter-terrorism, with knowledge of Afghanistan affairs, made a strong plea to top army authorities to send reinforcements. He even met President Bush and Vice-President Cheney who listened to him but did nothing. Similar pleas by other officers did not succeed either because President Bush had already decided by then to prepare for the invasion of Iraq for the removal of Saddam Hussein, instead of concentrating on Afghanistan. On December 16, Osama and his followers crossed over to Pakistan, helped by his Afghan and Pakistani contacts, unchallenged. He lived in Pakistan and was killed by US Navy Seals in 2011.

Had the pleas for reinforcement of troops been accepted, things might have been different and the US might have been spared the ignominy of ending its Afghan mission in disgrace. Joe Biden’s strategy for withdrawal of US troops might have been influenced by domestic political considerations; or was he in a hurry to end USA’s longest war to be able to focus on the containment of China for its aggressive designs in the Indo-Pacific region, through the Quad and the AUKUS?

After capturing Kabul, the Taliban took more than three weeks to put a government in place because of the serious differences that cropped up among the different groups that had fought the war. When the names of 33 members were announced for an interim cabinet on 7 September, it was hardly an ‘inclusive’ team as had earlier been promised.

It was an all-male team, and had no representative from the ethnic minorities. With the induction of 17 members subsequently, representatives from the minority ethnic groups ~ the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks ~ have been accommodated, but there is still no woman representation. The major problem facing the Taliban now is gaining international recognition which will depend on the way the new leadership behaves.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has said it is important for the international community to ‘incentivise’ the Taliban to fulfil the promises it had made when it seized power in Kabul, by assuring them of consistent supply of humanitarian and development assistance. Otherwise, conditions in Afghanistan will be chaotic.

The Security Council in its resolution No.2593 has called upon Afghanistan not to allow its territory to be used by terrorists to launch attacks on other states. Whether Kabul can ensure that remains to be seen given the presence of Al Qaeda and the Pakistan-based India-centric terrorist groups in Afghanistan, besides the ISKP. Will the new Taliban leadership be able to ensure the maintenance of basic human rights, especially the rights of women and children? The consequences of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan remain uncertain given the stupendous problems that the leadership is facing; the future state of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan also remains uncertain.

Will Pakistan be able to exercise influence on the Taliban leaders to the extent it wants? The question becomes important in the context of a senior Taliban leader’s harsh comments on Imran Khan’s call for an inclusive government in Kabul. Will a resurgent Taliban, consisting mostly of the Pashtuns, reignite the flames of Pashtun ‘nationalism’ for suppression of which Pakistan has encouraged the growth of Islamic radicalism? Finally, how will the victory of the Afghan Taliban affect the TTP? These and similar other questions are likely to haunt Pakistan’s ‘deep state’.