Now that it has been announced, it is worth pointing out that the formation of Taliban’s all-male interim government isn’t a political settlement that government formations usually are, but the formal establishment of a regime through the barrel of gun that owes its existence and remains beholden to Pakistan.
And since it isn’t a political compromise, with ethnic minorities remaining largely ignored in an exclusive, hardcore theocratic Sunni Pashtun base, the political and security stability that Taliban claim to have brought is likely an illusion. The ethnic religious groups who have not found representation will have their say.
So will the youth and women who have had a two-decade brush with modernity and democracy. Given Afghanistan’s history, another civil unrest isn’t far away.
Yet Pakistan won’t complain. If Taliban’s ascension had fulfilled three-fourths of its strategic objective in Afghanistan, the remaining one-fourth has been met in a resounding fashion with one faction of the Taliban — the Haqqanis — gaining key positions of power that gives Islamabad a unique and deep-rooted advantage.
Pakistan has worked hard for decades to earn this outcome.
Even at the eleventh hour when it seemed that the Taliban, who are more at ease fighting than in governing, may squander the opportunity by indulging in internal bickering and failing to form a government, Pakistan dispatched the ISI chief to Kabul on a mission, and soon the formation of a 33-strong Cabinet was announced.
Reports suggest Pakistani forces also aided the Taliban in crushing the Panjshir resistance, the last holdout against Taliban rule.
Michael Rubin, former Pentagon official, wrote in 1945 that ISI chief Faiz Hameed rushed to Kabul after a reported clash between the Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar factions and the Haqqani group in which Baradar sustained injuries. The factional strife rose from the fact that even within the Taliban, some are “Afghan nationalists” while some “take their orders solely from the ISI.”
According to Rubin, “many factions remain loyal to the Taliban but, left to their own devices, some within the movement would turn their backs on their former patron and the puppets it seeks to install. This is what Hameed now seeks to prevent.”
Pakistan spy chief’s very public appearance in Kabul, his role in brokering the power-sharing arrangement within the Taliban indicate that Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence establishment is owning the process. The developments make a mockery of Pakistan’s claims before the world that its leverage over the Taliban is limited.
Pakistan’s memo to the Taliban is that they should remain obedient, and message to the West is that all paths to security and stability in Afghanistan run through Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Just to drive home the point, Pakistan on Wednesday held a virtual foreign ministers’ meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours attended by China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan “to discuss Afghan strategy,” and Shah Mahmood Qureshi floated the idea of “inviting the new rulers in Kabul to future gatherings.”
This is Pakistan’s victory lap after securing what Avinash Paliwal calls Pakistan’s “biggest strategic win since 1971”. It is now clear that Doha faction, the diplomatically savvy and most recognized face of the Taliban who travelled around the world, met world leaders and signed the Doha agreement, have been sidelined in favour of the Haqqani and Kandahar factions so that there’s no scope for any ideological promiscuity or independent thinking in the future.
Baradar, a founding member of the Taliban who was arrested by Pakistan in 2010 and is seen as relatively moderate, and Sher Mohammad Stanikzai, with whom India opened a formal diplomatic channel last month, find themselves out of favour. As one of the deputy prime ministers, Baradar will be third in order of hierarchy, under prime minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund (of destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas fame) and supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. Stanekzai is a deputy foreign minister, a position of little consequence.
The Cabinet is populated by the Haqqani terror mafias and Kandahari Taliban leaders, many of whom carry US bounties on their heads. The most notorious of these picks is globally designated terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network — an Islamist terror mafia network based in Pakistan’s north Waziristan, that has close links with Al- Qaeda, and specialises in kidnapping, narcotics, extortion and all forms of organised crime.
Haqqani is among the most wanted terrorists in the world with a number of deadly terror attacks and against Indians and Americans to his name, and FBI implicates him in an assassination attempt on then Afghan president Hamid Karzai in 2008. The FBI, in its reward for justice program, has placed a $10 million bounty for any information leading to the capture of Haqqani, who as interior minister in the Taliban government will have the power to choose local governors and control the Afghan intel network.
As Indian Express reported, “From New Delhi’s perspective, Sirajuddin Haqqani as Afghanistan’s interior minister is the most telling signal that the cabinet has been handpicked by the ISI… He will have leverage and the ability to pack the country’s provinces with his — and the ISI’s — handpicked men. The sense in South Block is that this will have deep strategic consequences for India, and for the region as a whole.”
Then there is Sirajuddin’s uncle Khalil Haqqani, another designated terrorist who carries a US bounty on his head and has close ties to Al-Qaeda. As acting refugees minister, Khalil Haqqani is already overseeing the deportation of Afghan refugees by busloads from Pakistan. Their lives are at risk.
The moral panic in several European capitals and Washington over a government of terrorists in Afghanistan is inexplicable. The EU said it fell short of “promises”.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said the government failed the inclusivity test and the US is “concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of those individuals.”
An EU spokesperson said: “It does not look like the inclusive and representative formation of Afghanistan’s rich ethnic and religious diversity that we had hoped to see and that the Taliban promised in recent weeks.”
According to the UN: “By excluding women from the machinery of government the Taliban leadership has sent the wrong signal about their stated goal of building an inclusive, strong and prosperous society.”
It is a pointer to their world of delusion and cherubic innocence.
The Taliban never cared for ethnic inclusivity or women’s rights and have no patience for the sermon on “values” meted out by the lotus eaters in the West. They are not dying for western recognition and legitimacy as long as they have China on their side and that takes away whatever little leverage the West believed it had over the Taliban.
If western leaders held the terror group to its promises, then the joke is on the EU and the US, not the Taliban. The regime of battle-hardened terrorists that we see installed in Kabul (14 of them are UN-blacklisted terrorists and five are former inmates of Guantánamo Bay freed by Barack Obama in exchange for the release of a US soldier in 2014) is the painstaking outcome arrived at by Pakistan through years of connivance, duplicity and stratagem at great risk to its reputation.
If Blinken is facing trouble in accepting the reality that the Taliban government “certainly does not meet the test of inclusivity, and it includes people who have very challenging track records” then he should note that this is the inevitable consequence of America’s two decades of failed strategy in not holding Pakistan responsible for begetting, aiding and abetting the Taliban and doggedly looking the other way despite a mountain of evidence that Pakistan was double crossing the US.
The fact that its own “major non-NATO ally” was foiling US objectives in Afghanistan at every turn for over two decades, and was plotting to overthrow the democratically-elected Afghan government was not unknown to generations of politicians and policymakers in Washington. But Pakistan’s limitless ability for perfidious behaviour is matched only by America’s inexhaustible gullibility.
As professor C Christine Fair wrote in The Daily Beast, “No matter what Pakistan did, American officials found reasons to excuse it. Many believed that there was some magical combination of allurements that could transform Pakistan from the regional menace it was and is, into a state that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
America’s masochistic behavior in Afghanistan and willing suspension of disbelief made only one outcome possible — the one that we now witness in Kabul. Documents declassified in 2007 show that Washington had always been aware that the “Taliban was directly funded, armed and advised by Islamabad itself” — a reality that was always known to Indian security establishment.
Declassified US state department cables and US intelligence chronicles “describe the use of Taliban terrorist training areas in Afghanistan by Pakistani-supported militants in Kashmir, as well as Pakistan’s covert effort to supply Pashtun troops from its tribal regions to the Taliban cause in Afghanistan-effectively forging and reinforcing Pashtun bonds across the border and consolidating the Taliban’s severe form of Islam throughout Pakistan's frontier region.”
We don’t have to search for more incriminating evidence, we have former Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf vouching for the reality.
As analyst Nitin Pai wrote in his blog, “Had the US decided to weaken the military-jihadi complex to the point that Pakistani democracy could re-emerge, it would have solved the entire Af-Pak problem. Instead, the Bush administration declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, coddled Musharraf and the army establishment and gave them a lot of money.”
The true question, therefore, is not why Taliban government isn’t inclusive or sensitive to women’s rights or why it is filled with UN-blacklisted dreaded terrorists, rather why the US chose to focus on the wrong enemy for 20 years. Now that Pakistan’s duplicity is out in the open, and its chest-thumping evident on finally installing a proxy government of terrorists in Kabul, still we have governments, policymakers and analysts in the West clamouring for deeper engagement with Pakistan.
The UK government considers “Pakistan a vital UK partner on Afghanistan” and its visiting foreign secretary Dominic Raab said last Friday that the “basis for the UK-Pakistan relationship is very strong - and the UK has the desire to take it to the next level.”
Meanwhile, British State-funded BBC tried its utmost to shut down scholars critical of Pakistan in a brazen show of certitude that only rank stupidity can confer.
Pakistan may be the arsonist posing as the firefighter in Afghanistan, but well-meaning senators in the US are still posing immense faith in Islamabad, stating that “Any sustainable solution in Afghanistan must include Pakistan. We all must remember Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation, and there is a Pakistan version of the Taliban who wishes topple the Pakistani government and military.”
As late as 30 July, when Taliban was rapidly gaining ground in Afghanistan, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan was holding discussions with Pakistan NSA on “the urgent need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.”
It is incredulous that the US still drinks the “political settlement” Kool-Aid provided gladly by Pakistan when the Taliban has come up with a military solution.
Pakistan’s proxy government may be trolling Washington by naming the very terrorists in its Cabinet that the US is hunting for, but showing an immense capacity for naivete, delusion or self-harm, the Joe Biden administration has sent the CIA chief William Burns to Pakistan where he is meeting army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and spymaster Hameed to discuss counterterrorism cooperation between the two sides. The meeting happened on Thursday. Difficult to make this stuff up.
Leaked documents show the Biden administration is pressing Pakistan to “do more” on fighting “bad terror groups” such as ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a State now ruled by “good terrorists” the Taliban over which Pakistan holds leverage. The Politico report that accessed this information quotes Lisa Curtis, a former US national security council official in the Donald Trump administration as saying that “If anybody is arguing that we need Pakistan’s support to try to moderate Taliban behavior, I think they should remember that we didn’t get that support for 20 years, so we’re unlikely to get it now that the Taliban is in power in Afghanistan.”
What explains America’s enduring capacity for trust when it comes to Pakistan, despite being aware of its deceit? What stops the US, that has an array of coercive tools at its disposal, from sanctioning officers in Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment to get the message across?
The answer to this decade old question remains unclear. A part of it is attributable to Pakistan’s dexterous moves in using terror as an instrument of State policy to achieve its strategic objectives and managing to sell the idea to the risk-averse West that no solution in a tricky geography is possible without Pakistan’s cooperation.
Consider the current predicament of the Western governments that are pledging cooperation with Pakistan driven by a belief that only the generals in Rawalpindi hold a degree of control over the Taliban and given the right incentives, may agree to keep them in check. This notion of indispensability is Pakistan’s biggest achievement.
The second part of the answer lies in the perpetuation of the myth that as a nuclear-armed weak State with weaker institutions, Pakistan is too dangerous to fail. A variation of this argument has been doing the rounds of policymakers and analysts in Washington and Pakistan has only been too happy to fuel this fear.
As scholars Fair and Sumit Ganguly wrote in Foreign Affairs, “In fact, Pakistan encouraged Americans to fear the worst outcome: a rupture in the State security apparatus that would allow terrorists to get their hands on Pakistani nuclear know-how, fissile materials, or weapons—even as Pakistan used US funds to invest in such assets along the way.”
We have now reached a stage in Afghanistan where the US and the West have given up all pretensions of leverage over the Taliban and would be happy to forget that this troubled region and its unfortunate people even existed as long as the fulcrum of Taliban’s agreement with the US holds — no attack against the US or its allies from Afghan territory.
If this limited objective is met, the West is happy to let Pakistan be the guarantor of security and more than willing to throw money so that the refugee problem doesn’t spill over into the rich countries. The UK is pledging “life-saving aid to Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries to help those who choose to leave Afghanistan during the crisis” — an euphemism for bribing the central Asian states and even Pakistan to handle the refugee issue.
Unfortunately, India will bear the biggest strategic fallout of this developing crisis. Credible voices assess that Taliban’s rise poses long-term security nightmare for India.
India has always been aware of America’s self-defeating Pakistan policy, but as long as US and NATO troops maintained a presence in Afghanistan, it was a situation India could live with. As the West now scuttles away and throws more money at Pakistan, further incentivising its duplicitous game in the region — and with no US or NATO presence in Afghanistan of any kind — the threat to India in its east may witness a dramatic rise.
Going ahead, this may pose challenges for the US as well in its attempt to refocus on the strategic rivalry with China. It remains to be seen how Washington manages the policy incongruity of aiding Pakistan — that will do everything to keep India unstable — and partnering with India on China. We are in for interesting times.