Imran khan really said that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan broke the chains of slavery. I didn’t believe that he could have said something so anti-historical and offensive until I saw it on You Tube. A month or six weeks earlier, when what was then generally seen as the denouement of America’s 20-year involvement there, in an interview on the PBS Evening News, he seemed to prefer a more moderate outcome, some sort of political solution that included the Taliban in a broad-based government. “The Americans really messed it up,” he said, speaking about the 20 years of war, and could have had a political solution a decade earlier, when we had 150,000 troops there.
A lot of Americans probably agreed with him, at least with his first assertion that we had screwed it up. The inference I made from his words was that a political solution was much more likely after the US had departed. At the time of his PBS interview, however, a political solution was viewed as a longshot by most observers who believed that a political solution could not be attained because the Taliban were convinced of their ultimate victory, and that the ultimate outcome would be a vicious civil war followed by a bloody Taliban victory.
Khan mentioned that the worst scenario for Pakistan would be civil war, primarily because of the millions of additional refugees that would seek refuge in Pakistan
I thought that his comments in that interview gave me some insight into Pakistan’s policy objectives in the 20-year Afghanistan war. This had eluded up until then. This belief was reinforced by a comment National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, made a little later that Pakistan would not allow a military solution to the war, implying that Pakistan would not support a Taliban takeover by force.
So I was, and still am, puzzled by PM Khan’s seeming jubilation at the actual outcome. It would have seemed logical to me that Pakistan would have wanted and worked for, a political solution which included the Taliban as part of a larger government in which their worst instincts and beliefs would be bridled by other, more moderate parts of that government. Now the Pakistanis have the second worst outcome, a Taliban government in full control (well not yet as it is still getting organized), but soon to be free to give full sway to those worse instincts, not only in domestic policy but in their policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan’s other neighbors.
If I am not mistaken, the history of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations is replete with ancient and current grievances and annoyances. These run from: the long standing problems over Durand Line, never recognized by Afghanistan; Afghanistan’s vote against Pakistan’s entrance into the United Nations and the fear of an Afghan push for a Pushtunistan; to more modern ones such as Afghanistan’s relationship with India, and the question of Pakistan’s sheltering of anti-India extremist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba; and foremost among them the very close relationship between the real Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) as the latter is at war with the Pakistan state. This is only a shortlist of possible problems and doesn’t include more generic problems, such as the likelihood that the Taliban will break their promise to keep transnational terrorist groups out of Afghanistan, which could affect the entire region, raise serious problems with Pakistan’s neighbors, and invite again the intervention of major Western powers.
Now I did not take Moeed Yusuf’s statement at face value, because I doubted that Pakistan would be ready to back up the policy he described with force, thus going to war with its former proxy. So, there is the question of what level of influence Pakistan has with the Taliban. After all, Pakistan’s ISI created the Taliban in 1994, not with the idea of creating a force that would take over the state, but as a force that could bring stability to an area of Afghanistan through which Pakistani traders and other merchants could transit to the North and do business with the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other northern neighbors of Afghanistan. That the Taliban grew into the force it has become is another reminder of the hazard of Pakistan’s habit of creating proxies to do its dirty work. This has always reminded me of the Frankenstein legend—creating a proxy (monster in the legend) who then kills its creators. I have written occasionally over the years of that legend as a metaphor for Pakistan’s use of proxies (and the danger of those proxies destroying their creator). So far Pakistan has avoided that fate
But clearly the biggest proxy Pakistan created was the Taliban which has yet to evidence a desire to destroy its creator, but is well beyond its control. I witnessed the first time that Pakistani leaders realized they were losing the control of the Taliban when it ignored Pakistani heavy hitter envoys endeavoring to get them to not destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan. I could almost see the light that went on in General Musharraf’s head when he heard the news. I suspect that Pakistan still has some influence on the Taliban but on a limited range of issues; a certain loyalty is owed for the ability the Taliban had to shelter in Pakistan when the going got tough. But how the Taliban will govern Afghanistan this time around is not probably not one of them. It appears that taking over the state by force was not one of them either.
The first time that Pakistani leaders realized they were losing the control of the Taliban was when it ignored Pakistani heavy hitter envoys endeavoring to get them to not destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan
Pakistani leaders may have been as astonished as American leaders and most observers with the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government once the US forces and the contractors had left and had no time to try to stop the takeover. But, frankly, it seems unlikely that they tried, and I believe the Taliban have been set from almost the beginning to take back Afghanistan by force. This determination only hardened as they saw the US surge and then withdraw forces and our will to win wither as we saw the near impossibility of doing so without unacceptably high bloodshed.
So my guess is that the jubilation Khan and like-minded Pakistanis expressed may turn to consternation as the Taliban tighten their grip on Afghanistan. Pakistan is likely to confront some serious foreign and domestic policy problems as the Taliban begin to stake out their real interests in the region. In addition, of course, the paradigm of Pakistan’s security posture may have to change. The much misunderstood and much modified strategic depth doctrine at the core of security policy requires a friendly, or at least complicit Afghanistan, and I wonder if that will continue.
Afghanistan has, for many years, has not profited from the economic growth and modernization that its strategic location should have fostered. Instead of a main transit route between South Asia and Central Asia, it became a battle ground primarily among proxies of its neighbors and other invaders. The history of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations have historically been plagued with problems, and were more or less friendly only when the Taliban took over in 1996. Pakistan led the way in recognizing that Taliban regime and harbored its refugees and escapees after 9/11 (and terrorists including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden).
This 25-year period of relative stability in the relationship between the Taliban and various arms of the Pakistani government is probably what inspires optimism for a cooperative future in those relations among those Pakistanis who share PM Khan’s feelings. They might want to look further back in history. Pakistan created the Taliban and favored them among the mix of jihadists in the 1990s because it was believed that the Taliban empathized Islam over Pashtun nationalism, and were thus not a threat to take up the cause of Pushtanistan.
Pakistan’s concern about the Taliban ideology is related to the seemingly unending insurgency in Baluchistan and the almost forgotten loss of half of country in 1971, which is still, also wrongly, viewed as an ethnic insurgency. But both of these insurgencies are symbolic of serious structural deficiencies in the Pakistani state.
The Taliban seem to have morphed into Afghan nationalists. We will learn more about that when we see how they deal with the transnational Islamic extremists that will try to gain a toe hold there in the next few months. If they allow transnational Islamic extremist organizations a foothold, Western nations are likely to maintain sanctions and restrict economic assistance. The economic impact of that might lead to increased resistance and ultimately to Pakistan’s worst-case scenario, a return to civil war. But I think the Taliban are unlikely to do this, and will step out as Afghan nationalists, seeking assistance and recovery. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will return to promoting Pustanistan, but it makes more likely, at the very least that they will begin to aid the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PMT) and its challenge to the state, which would almost certainly exacerbate the trouble in Baluchistan.
The Taliban seem to have morphed into Afghan nationalists
One more thought before I end this piece. It goes back to Imran Khan’s “End of Slavery” assessment of the Taliban takeover by force of the Afghan state. I will bet that for every Afghan woman who feels the chains have fallen off, there are at least 1,000 who feel the chains of slavery have been put back on; for every Hazara out on the streets cheering for the Taliban at least 1,000 are in hiding a fear for their lives; and so on. America made some serious mistakes in Afghanistan and our actions, regrettably, killed innocent people. But I will remember the great joy of millions when we kicked the Taliban out of power, and the great fear when they took over again. Twenty years had not softened the memory of their atrocious reign.