The Taliban may rule most of Afghanistan, but no serious analyst doubts it is a creature of Pakistan.
Even before 9/11, a Human Rights Watch report noted, “Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.”
In May and April of 2001, the report concluded, as many as 30 trucks a day were crossing the border to deliver munitions, including artillery shells and landmines, to Taliban units. Pakistan’s army and intelligence services, notably the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), made the Taliban potent fighters. Pakistani soldiers and intelligence officers even helped plan and carry out military operations.
The Taliban’s origin myth has it that Mullah Omar joined up with a few madrassah students (‘taliban’) to hit back at some wayward Kandahar warlord in September 1994.
In reality, according to Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. envoy to the region, the ISI crafted what became the Taliban at least a year earlier. The Taliban was not a new organization so much as a reshuffled combination of Pakistan’s existing network of jihadis.
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, current Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed and others have publicly acknowledged Pakistan’s role behind the Taliban.
Indeed, Pakistan’s role in creating and sustaining the Taliban has been an open secret for three decades. As Pakistani journalist Mohammad Taqi put it recently:
“[I]t is Pakistan, or more specifically its army that sired, saved, retracted, reorganised, and unleashed the Taliban on Afghanistan. Pakistan has harboured Afghan jihadist proxies since at least 1973 to counter Afghanistan’s irredentist claims over the Pashtun areas to the east of the Durand Line [the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan] and its support for the secular Pashtun and Baloch movements that ranged from nationalist to secessionist and to achieve the so-called strategic depth against its arch-rival India.”
Little changed after 9/11 brought American troops to Afghanistan and scrutiny to Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban. “With an angry superpower looking over their shoulder, Pakistan was forced to tread more cautiously, Pakistan was forced to tread more cautiously and give up some members of the network while protecting its overall integrity and expanding it” wrote Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, in an April 2021 report.
From 2001 to 2020, the Taliban attacked America, NATO and Afghan government forces inside Afghanistan non-stop, but sporadically and selectively. This was irregular warfare with limited objectives; only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals fell briefly to the Taliban in 2015 before being recaptured.
The main Taliban force was held in reserve, together with Pakistan’s al-Qaeda, Haqqani network and other terrorist auxiliaries, waiting for the right moment to launch a full-scale invasion.
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That moment was prepared by three fateful decisions.
First, President Obama opted to engage Islamabad (even after Osama bin Laden was killed inside Pakistan in 2011) to shore up democracy in the country and set conditions for an Afghan peace process.
Second, Zalmai Khalilzad, special representative for Afghan reconciliation at the U.S. State Department, signed an agreement with the Taliban during Donald Trump’s presidency in 2020 that excluded the Afghan government — giving the terrorist group unprecedented prestige.
Third, on April 14, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden’s announced he was withdrawing the last American military forces (including contractors and technicians playing key enabling roles for the Afghan army and air force), even though no ceasefire or peace settlement had been achieved.
All of these signals — Obama’s decision not to hold Pakistan accountable for protecting bin Laden; Trump’s unsound deal with the Taliban; and Biden’s rush for the exits — gave the ISI their cue. Pakistan has been playing its military cards ever since, ramping up its invasion force to dominate most rural districts and launch assaults on cities. In the first two weeks of August, they captured most of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals, including the strategically important centres of Kandahar and Herat. By August 15 they had taken Kabul.
So, why has the international community (including the United States) failed to act? How is it possible that, 20 years after 9/11, Pakistan can launch a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan under the world’s nose?
While it’s tempting to simplify such explanations, I can think of seven major reasons:
First, history has bequeathed the U.S. and U.K. a dangerously uncritical inertia in relations with Pakistan. Pakistan’s help in facilitating America’s pivot to China in 1971, then again in the American- and British-backed jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, combined with British fingerprints on Pakistan’s emergence as a state after 1947 (the first director general of ISI attended Royal Military College, Sandhurst), have pre-disposed generations of American and British policy-makers to see Pakistan as a strategic partner, even when there has been overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Second, until this year American and NATO military operations in Afghanistan have depended on land and air routes through and over Pakistan for re-supply and close air support.
Third, the US has tended to pursue transactional relations with Pakistan. After 9/11, the focus moved from terrorism to nuclear issues to democracy to countering China’s influence. But there has never been a strategic effort to confront or end Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban and its continuous meddling in Afghanistan.
Fourth, Pakistan has used a wide array of techniques to cover its tracks. When prominent voices point out Pakistan’s sins, they are taken to task by Pakistani diplomats, lobbyists or other advocates who deny the facts, then blame Afghanistan, India or the US. This is Islamabad’s version of the ‘Big Lie’ first employed by dictators in radio propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s, now enjoying a new vogue in the social media era thanks to populists and authoritarians.
The fifth reason is that democracies are conflict averse. Is this hypocritical, naïve and ultimately self-defeating? Yes, but it is also a persistent reality and fatal blind spot for diplomacy.
The sixth reason is that Pakistan’s treacherous politics are difficult to navigate. Countless political leaders have been assassinated, “disappeared,” jailed or exiled. Separatist movements have sprouted in Baluchistan while Karachi, the country’s largest city, became a warzone for many years. Amid this complexity, the generals have often sailed under the radar.
Seventh, American, British and other countries’ military brass have themselves been slow to realize their Pakistani counterparts were lying to them — and even slower to do anything about it.
In the end, it may be Pakistan’s singular focus on the arts of deceit — throwing sand in everyone’s eyes — that has allowed them to escape accountability so far for a “forever war” against Afghanistan that it first launched in the 1970s. When the prying eyes of journalists have strayed towards Pakistan’s proxy wars assets, they are threatened or killed. At least 34 have been murdered since 1992 because of their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. More of have been killed by assailants with unconfirmed motives.
Ironically, Pakistan would have the most to gain from peace in Afghanistan, if it came. It is a much larger country, with huge economic potential and a strategic position on the Indian ocean. Yet Pakistan is held back by the militaristic ideology of a few key leaders which remains misunderstood and underestimated both inside and outside the country.
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By now, most NATO capitals have a decent grip on Vladimir Putin’s neo-Stalinism in Russia, Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoism in China and the Iranian theocracy’s proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But few have studied Pakistani General Mirza Aslam Beg’s doctrines of the “core of Islam” and “strategic depth.”
Beg was Pakistan’s chief of the army staff (COAS) over the crucial years from 1988 to 1991 — a time when al-Qaeda was formed to fight the Soviets and their puppet government in Afghanistan and when, following the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan renewed its forever war in Afghanistan, free of direct U.S. support.
Prior to this period, as a professor at Pakistan’s National Defence University, Beg had championed the “core of Islam” concept whereby Pakistan and Iran would share control of Afghanistan. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Beg pushed the related concept of “strategic depth” in which Pakistan would compensate for the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 by dominating Afghanistan and launching proxy wars in Central Asia, Chinese Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Pervez Musharraf was influenced by Beg during his time at National Defence University. He and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (first as director general of the ISI spy agency, then as Musharraf’s successor as chief of the army staff) became the principal architects of the post-2001 phase of these doctrines, which saw the Taliban and other proxies renew their irregular warfare in Afghanistan, while preparing for a full-scale invasion down the road to restore them fully to power in Kabul.
During his time as head of ISI, Kayani was also, from 2005 to 2007, colonel commandant of the Baloch Regiment, headquartered in Abbottabad, when Osama bin Laden took up residence in a prominent compound in that city. Kayani’s successor as chief of the army staff, General Raheel Sharif, was commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad from 2008 to 2010 — when Bin Laden was living a few hundred metres from academy’s front gate. All a coincidence, surely.
Beg’s columns in The Nation are the musings of a devoted Taliban fanboy. In August 2011, he called the occupation of Afghanistan the “mother of all evil” and said the Taliban, as the inevitable winner of the war there, must be allowed to lay down the terms for peace. Recent events in Afghanistan have played out mostly according to Beg’s script, and the ideology he championed now threatens to visit calamity on Afghanistan yet again.
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How should the world respond? As it did with every other major invasion of the late 20th and 21st centuries (including the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014): by imposing far-reaching sanctions.
On August 1, I tweeted an image of Taliban fighters lounging against the border fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan under the hashtag #SanctionPakistan. Within days, as Afghan cities wilted, the hashtag became the most popular social media trend in Afghan history. Within two weeks, it had been tweeted and re-tweeted one million times by people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world.
The leaders of Pakistan’s Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) have been calling even longer for an end to Talibanization and Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan — the theme of a paper I wrote for the Macdonald Laurier Institute that was published in March of this year.
Many more American, British and Canadian soldiers and officers have died at the hands of the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan than American, British or Canadian citizens died on 9/11, and far more Afghans have died because of Pakistan’s forever war.
By failing to hold Pakistan’s military leaders to account for this unending aggression, the U.S. and its allies have damaged their credibility and harmed our combined national interests.
The world needs to come together, at long last, to enforce the rule of non-interference — a fundamental principle of international law on which the UN Charter is based — and end Pakistan’s long litany of acts of aggression against its smaller neighbour.
The benefits, which would include peace, a flowering of youthful human capital, and a transformation by decidedly merchant civilizations of the main routes of the ancient Silk Road into arteries of innovation for the silicon era, would be enormous for Afghanistan, Pakistan, the rest of Asia and far beyond.