BY: Lt. Gen. (R) Tariq Khan
When we are together, everyone here is talking about how the Taliban have destroyed our lives. They won’t let us go to school because they want us to be illiterate like them’. Nasima, 35-year-old Kabul resident.
Pakistan has been a victim of labels being imposed upon it or its conduct. One of these labels pertain to the Good-Taliban Bad-Taliban syndrome. Yet, Pakistan never clarifies its position; either because of indifference or plain incompetence but most likely both. The fact is that those who are addressed as the Good Taliban are the Afghan resistance movement and those who are recognized as the Bad Taliban were criminals from the FATA areas who usurped tribal authority in violation of custom, tradition and local laws. The former was engaged in a resistance movement against who they considered to be foreign occupation forces and the latter were a tool in the hand of Al Qaeda with the Pakistan State as its sole objective. The former ‘Good Taliban’ moved freely across the fluid border and used Pakistani territory to establish an administrative staging area. This allowed them a safe haven for their families and space to meet, coordinate, plan and interact with one another. They did the same, at a much larger scale and in far more overt manner, in Dubai and Doha where it allowed them to establish diplomatic ties with the international community in general and the US in particular. However, the latter, the Bad Taliban, used the concept of establishing an Islamic Emirates as a casus- belie, challenging the Pakistani Constitution, but were essentially resourced and funded by agencies hostile to Pakistan so as to create an environment of chaos and confusion.
The world expected that Pakistan should deal with both Taliban in an equitable manner, in other words, rout the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan just as the Pakistan Law Enforcement were routing the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). The Afghan Taliban were a resistance movement as a consequence of international presence in Afghanistan and not because of anything Pakistan had done. Their movement to and fro from Pakistan was a product of a time-based tradition of ‘Easement Rights’ across the Durand Line to allow the people of the area to meet each other and their relatives. The Afghan Taliban had caused no harm to Pakistan but the world expected that Pakistan should start a fresh war on behalf of the international coalition in its own territory. That Pakistan must fight the Afghan Taliban for the exact same reason that they were housed and accommodated in the UAE and Qatar but where the international community, hypocritically, looked the other way. It is amazing to see how was it not kosher for them to live in areas that they were affiliated to over ages yet, at the same times it was kosher for them live in other distant lands, funded, resourced by the world at large. As it was, Pakistan was already plagued by its own internal battles with the TTP and was never in a position to start another conflict against a people it had no bone to pick with. Considering that Pakistan was being blamed for providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban, the concern is extremely skewed when seen in the light of the border management arrangements.
On a 2670 Kms long border, Pakistan had and still has today about 1100 posts while the Afghans and the coalition combined had only about 350 posts. Furthermore, Pakistan initiated the fencing of the Durand Line that was strongly opposed by Afghanistan who was bleating the most, that resistance fighters, were moving across the border. No one publically acknowledged that the battles that were fought were always in Afghan Territory and never in Pakistan and that if anyone needed to deal with the matter he would have to deal with it there in Afghanistan. Neither did anyone take into consideration the huge poppy crop (9,900 tons in 2017 amounting to 7% of Afghanistan’s GDP) that provided billions to the insurgency to resource their initiatives. It peaked at $ 6.6 Bn in 2021, (Jonathan Landay –Profits and poppy: Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade a boon for the Taliban). The Coalition confined themselves to their small garrisons while the Taliban operated all around them and established a credible presence in the rural areas of Afghanistan. In the year 2021, they dominated 40% of Afghanistan. Then with rampant corruption, any semblance of governance or coalition control was vague and tentative. To ignore all this, the Taliban dominant presence in the rural areas, the resources from the poppy, the safe-havens provided in the UAE and Doha and the unprecedented corruption but to instead only blame Pakistan with the tongue in cheek, ‘Good Taliban’ argument, stinks of duplicity, deceit and dishonesty.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had access to the Afghan Taliban leadership and as such provided some sort of go-between services. The international community was convinced that the Pakistani Intelligence could influence the Afghan Taliban which was not only an exaggerated perception but one that was encouraged as own intelligence operators inflated themselves with a false importance. Yet they remained as mere event-mangers facilitating and coordinating matters between the Afghan Taliban and powers that be but were never more than that. As negotiations failed or the Afghan Taliban refused to fall into line, the Pakistani Intelligence Agencies were blamed for not putting their weight behind the arguments proffered by the West. There was no weight. The Afghan Taliban considered themselves to be independent in their philosophy, were arrogant in their posture and superior in their demeanor. To the Pakistani Intelligence Operators, they remained condescending as they used and handled these operators to their own ends.
The Afghan Taliban are a product of a conservative, strict religious education where anyone not in line with their thought, is not taken seriously. Theirs’s is an obscurantist outlook where all people must be forced to live like they did in Arabia 1400 years ago and that there was no other righteous way of life. Armed with this conviction, they perceive, that having won the war in Afghanistan, it has been a validation of their commitment towards their belief and faith. It is their conviction now that the impossible is possible and that two super powers were routed in their lands and that it was only because of their firm belief and piety. They are not willing to accept any other logic or rational and nor do they have the awareness, education or the wherewithal to analyze it any other way. To present any other argument to them about how the Soviets were forced to withdraw or how the US finally called it quits is tantamount to blasphemy. With this mindset, the Afghans in general feel that Pakistan is a weak State that cannot be relied upon and that it is always willing to be dictated to by super powers, unlike themselves. Our own politicians are very much part of developing this thought and have encouraged people in general and the Afghans in particular to believe that we were fighting on the US side and by default were the enemy of the Afghans in this conflict. This is not true and Pakistan had gone to great lengths not to enter Afghan territory or to conduct dedicated operations against Afghan Taliban. Allowing access to Afghanistan by land routes was a product of an international agreement of which every nation was a signatory to and it was a unanimous understanding (UN Resolution 1378). Had Pakistan not complied with it, it would have found itself fighting on the Taliban side against an international Coalition in general and India most certainly. This is something no one in Government explains and we watch impassively as our reputation is torn to bits regularly by the Afghans who see us as US stooges. A self-created impression by our very own in search of a little political mileage and a few moments glory as they trash their own country.
The Afghan Taliban comprise two components. The first is the leadership which at various levels and tiers could possibly make up about 25% of the Taliban overall strength. The rest are foot soldiers who are almost like a mob. The overall strength of the Taliban is about a 100,000 with some new recruits joining on a daily basis. The lower tier mob is unruly, ill-disciplined and not inclined to be bound by orders. The leadership is relatively more aware, have seen the world and how it functions and show an element of moderation. Whereas the leadership would very much like to establish some reasonable convention in local administration, education and the law, the mob is adamant in imposing their committed belief that Islamic Law, as only they interpret it, must be put in vogue. This brings the Taliban leadership in conflict with the mob which is why at times it appears that the mob is driving the leadership rather than the other way around. On the other hand, if the leadership decides to demobilize the mob so as to bring about some stability, they will themselves lose their clout and authority and so it has now become a case of where both entities needing each other – the means and the ends are devouring each other.
The leadership has been put into a difficult situation because of sanctions, the looming humanitarian crisis, failing economy and unemployment. One cannot expect that they would take any hard decisions at this time and further aggravate their own problems. In light of these difficulties, playing to the galleries, Pakistan once again figures out as a convenient scape-goat for the Taliban leadership. Playing on the self-created and false perception that Pakistan is the West’s lackey, that the government is un- Islamic and that the constitution is not in line with the Sharia, the Taliban love to run down Pakistan creating animosity amongst the masses and generally ridiculing Pakistan. This has further expanded into the Durand Line dispute, where the Taliban, incorrectly believe, the alignment to be illegal. They see this as an opportunity to show their military prowess and try to outshine Pakistan in daily skirmishes and border clashes.
Pakistan tries to play this down in the hope that the world does not notice and that Pakistan is still recognized as a major influence on the Afghan Taliban. While Pakistan tries to display a benign generosity in tolerating unreasonable behavior from the Afghans, the Afghans, true to habit, see this as a weakness, lack of political and military will. As such it is expected that this conflict will pick up in times to come and will get much worse if not addressed. On the other hand, the Afghan promise of dealing with the TTP was just hooting into the wind and the sooner Pakistan realizes it, the better. Afghanistan is a separate country, with its own interests and Pakistan does not figure out in the bigger equation where it is concerned. In the event Afghanistan does come to any terms with any block, region or country, the first country it will drop is Pakistan. Afghanistan has no right making comments on Pakistan’s system of governance or the faith of its people and should be advised to mind its own business. Pakistan’s main concern as to how would India see this situation or exploit it, is misplaced and by catering to fears of Indian revival in Afghanistan by this totally impotent, powerless and ineffectual behavior, Pakistan is inviting more trouble for itself.
Some steps the Pakistan must take immediately:
- Pakistan must have detailed talks with the Afghan representatives, defining how can the relationship be improved based on mutual respect and trust. Steps to improve relationship should be listed as KPIs and given timelines with well-articulated instruments of implementation.
- Pakistan must list areas where it can provide immediate assistance to Afghanistan in training, administration, education and communication etc.
- There is a possibility, that with its present attitude, Afghanistan may well refuse to talk or accept any assistance. In that case, Pakistan should down grade the embassy in Kabul till they, the Afghans, request that it be re-established to full strength. Pakistan must make it clear that status quo, as it is today, is unacceptable.
- Conduct and complete border fencing by an aggressive posture. Conduct border based military operations designed to put the Afghans in their place, addressing their false sense of superiority. This has been happening since 1947 – why not now?
- Inform the Afghans we do not believe in their Islam or Wahabism and have our own believe. Take it or leave it.
- Give a final ultimatum to the Afghans and the TTP and then proceed to conduct long range artillery attacks on TTP position, employ drones and the air force to bomb them into shape.
- Shut down the trade routes with Afghanistan till they guarantee good behavior and comply with international convention.
- Deny use of own airspace to air traffic to and fro from Afghanistan.
- Cancel all visas and block IDs given to Afghans. Cancel their passports.
It is time for Pakistan to take a stand on something at least. We are not a powerful nation but neither are we so helpless that a few uneducated, righteous extremists from Afghanistan can set the terms for a relationship with us. Worst still is our own limited intellect trying to draw foreign policy mileage from a relationship that was never there and continuing to live a self-deceiving lie.