The national sport of Afghanistan is Buzkashi, an ancient game involving men on horses, attempting to drop the carcass of a dead goat into a chalked circle or goal at the end of a large field. The imagery the popular sport evokes could very well be a metaphor for the horrific state of affairs Afghanistan is today. The lives of the people of Afghanistan are being flung around helplessly as the Taliban have now seized Kabul and have scored their winning goal.
As Taliban forces entered Kabul on 15 August, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and America abandoned its embassy in panic. This has been the culmination of months of a vicious rampage across the country, accelerating at a dangerous pace towards national domination. After the group signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan with the United States in Doha last February, it steadily made military gains, capturing village after village, setting in motion a domino effect of districts falling into their control, either by violence or fearful surrender.
In the years to come, while historians, political and military analysts will delve into the numerous reasons of how the Taliban were able to outlast a superpower and bring the Afghan nation to its knees, the most glaring and obvious cause for the Taliban’s success has been the support it has received from Pakistan.
A Long-Cherished Goal
Since the loss of East Pakistan in the mid-1970s, Pakistan’s military intelligence establishment has nurtured the dream of gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan that they may use in the event of a full-fledged military confrontation with India. It has hoped that by waging its proxy war in Afghanistan, first through Jamiat-i-Islami, then Hezb-i-Islami and then the Taliban, it can not only limit India’s influence in Afghanistan and the South Asian neighbourhood but also control the irredentist nationalist claims that Pashtuns in Afghanistan may have for the bordering Pashtun-majority tribal region in Pakistan.
By training, funding, supplying, arming the Taliban and providing them with diplomatic support through their negotiations with the United States, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency is close to achieving their goal: an annexation of sovereign Afghanistan through their proxy soldiers, the Taliban.
Since the Taliban upped their offensive earlier this summer, there have been two overlapping schools of thought in Pakistan regarding what this meant for the country and its bilateral relationship with Kabul. There have been, of course, the predictable radical Islamist thinking that the Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan are a welcome step towards the establishment of an Islamic government as they squash democratic and secular thinking espoused by the Ashraf Ghani government. Last month in Parliament, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leader Abdul Shakoor stated his belief that the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan were beneficial for Pakistan and that when Mullah Omar was the leader of the Taliban, no soldier of the Pakistan army was killed on the Afghan border. This is a perfect example of the Pakistani thinking.
Hypocritical, Bipolar Narrative
On the other hand, the official Pakistan government line is not one of obvious admiration for the Taliban, but neither has it been critical of the terrorist group. The Pakistan Foreign Minister has routinely tried to blame the Islamic State for violence in Afghanistan, absolving the Taliban of any blame. Even Prime Minister Imran Khan has, on a number of occasions, defended the Taliban, recently calling them “not some military outfit, but normal civilians” and acting as an unofficial spokesperson for the group, stating that they would not negotiate a political settlement as long as Ashraf Ghani remains President.
Pakistan’s hypocritical, bipolar narrative of stating their opposition to a Taliban takeover while continuing to provide shelter to its leaders, families of its fighters, its allies such as the Haqqani Network, continues irrespective of whatever blowback they might face. The military intelligence establishment has always put its own paranoia and insecurities over and above common, logical and rational sense, and unfortunately, for New Delhi and Kabul, will continue to do so. With the Taliban assured political power, Pakistan’s decades of work to install a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul is coming to fruition. The only difference between the current Taliban and the pre-2001 Taliban is that the group today comes with greater diplomatic heft and international legitimacy, courtesy of it its deal with Washington.
The Kashmir Question
The Taliban in Kabul is the worst possible scenario for India, which has been an ardent supporter of democratic forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban being in a position of power also means a much smaller role for Indian developmental projects in the country.
Compared to other regional nations, such as Russia, China, Iran, and needless to say, Pakistan, New Delhi has the weakest links to the Taliban and is in a position where it is catching up only just now, trying to develop some sort of a backchannel with the group.
In a statement made earlier this year, the Taliban clarified its stance on India, stating that it “does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries” and denied claims that it would join Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir. Such statements are sure to bother Pakistan, which has always tried to link Kabul and Kashmir with regards to having their “hands full” on both borders, as a means to extract greater concessions from Washington.
The next few months will be critical in terms of how the Taliban consolidate their power and how Pakistan responds to them. Will Pakistan recognise them as a legitimate government? How will the Taliban offer their gratitude to their Pakistani handlers and masters? Or will the Taliban’s newly found power, recognition and legitimacy mean the dawn of a new relationship? As the anniversary of the September 11 attacks looms, one thing is certain — the Taliban are right back where they were twenty years ago and Pakistan, as always, is ready to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.
(Kriti M. Shah is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. She is a part of the Department of Strategic Studirs where her research focusses on Afghanistan and Pakistan . She tweets @kritimshah. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)