There Goes the Neighborhood: Pakistan Is Uneasy Over the Taliban’s Return

There Goes the Neighborhood: Pakistan Is Uneasy Over the Taliban’s Return

There Goes the Neighborhood: Pakistan Is Uneasy Over the Taliban’s Return

Despite their differing responses to the Taliban victory, Pakistanis are united in believing they are not to blame.


Islamabad—How did it go so badly wrong? In all the column inches that have been devoted to answering this question, the one theme that has remained more or less constant is the mendacity and aloofness of the Pakistani state, which is being blamed in the West for the resurgence of the Taliban. In Pakistan itself, however, there is little in the way of political consensus. Since the fall of Kabul on Sunday evening, politicians and officials of all different stripes have contributed to a cacophony of different perspectives.

Among the most striking of these was offered by Imran Khan—Pakistan’s habitually loquacious prime minister—who congratulated the Taliban on Monday for “breaking the shackles of slavery.” Earlier in the day, the cleric cum parliamentarian Fazlur Rehman had issued a written statement celebrating the end of US occupation, which he described as an unprovoked act of violence. “After invaluable and sincere sacrifices, and with the help and validation of Allah,” he wrote, “the Taliban Mujahideen have managed to rid their country of global powers.”

Others view the developments in a wholly different light. Hina Rabbani Khar, who served as foreign minister from 2011 to 2013, described the victory of the Taliban as an unthinkable tragedy. “My feelings are of shock and horror,” she told The Nation. “We are seeing  horrific scenes that are unprecedented even in many of the wrongs that humanity has witnessed.” Her concern is shared by the diplomat Maleeha Lodhi, a former permanent representative to the United Nations and two-time ambassador to the United States. “The tragedy of the Afghan people for four decades is there for everyone to see,” she said, but she remained careful not to exclude the possibility of renewal. “The situation is in flux and there’s a lot of uncertainty—but in this uncertainty there is still an opportunity.”

Where there is a degree of consensus is in the disavowal of culpability—the feeling that the historical ties between the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence should not be used to put the state on trial. In the spring of 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet-backed administration of Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan was plunged into a protracted civil war with different regional powers vying for control through their proxies. After it became apparent that Gulbedin Hekmetyar, the Mujahid warlord favored by the Pakistani state, did not have the wherewithal to consolidate power, the leadership of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) threw their support behind the Taliban, who took over the country in September 1996.

Five years later, when the Taliban refused to extradite Osama bin Laden without proof of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the Republican administration of George W. Bush launched a full-scale campaign to oust them from power. At the time Pakistan was being ruled by Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, a military dictator who had taken over in a coup and did not have the clout to resist American pressure. Having been allegedly threatened over the phone by Colin Powell, he reluctantly signed up to the War on Terror, and in the two decades since, Pakistan has often been blamed for playing both sides. Gen. Asad Durrani—who headed ISI during the Afghan civil war—considers this charge a laughable proposition. “Instead of arguing, I simply say this,” he quipped to The Nation, “that if it is because of Pakistan that you have lost the war, I am prepared to take credit on behalf of the state. Because if by providing reluctant and deniable support to a ragtag militia, we have been able to defeat the world’s mightiest alliance, we must be very good indeed.”

But not everyone is willing to take the allegation in good humor. Sartaj Aziz—who held the foreign affairs portfolio in the government led by Nawaz Sharif—told The Nation that the United States was looking for a scapegoat. “Pakistan has suffered more than any other country on account of Afghanistan,” he said. “We did help the coalition forces…and in the process we lost 70,000 people. We incurred more than $150 billion of losses to our economy because of the terrorism that spilled over from Afghanistan.”

His point is echoed by Hina Rabbani Khar, who also suggests a mischievous element in the criticism. During her time in office, she alleges, the attempts of the Pakistani state to keep out undesirable elements by securing its border along the Durand Line were constantly rebuffed by global powers. “That’s something we wanted to do for long and that’s something that was resisted by the Americans and the Afghans and the Canadians and pretty much everyone else,” she said. “I never was able to explain the logic behind those that claimed that all ill coming into Afghanistan was from Pakistan to be against fencing that border.”

Instead of accusing Pakistan, Rabbani Khar suggests looking at the government of Ashraf Ghani, which she believes has nobody to blame but itself. “As far as the state was concerned, we’re talking about this coterie of elite people who were in it for themselves rather than in it for Afghanistan,” she said. “When Ashraf Ghani took that plane, it was like the state of Afghanistan fleeing from Afghanistan—so one wonders what state was there in the first place.”

General Durrani, by contrast, believes Ghani is a victim and blames the United States for opening the war to big business. “Even the training of the Afghan national army was palmed off to private companies. Armies that have to fight wars are not trained by private contractors. Private companies are not interested in training; they are interested in getting their contracts extended by doing the opposite.” In the August 2021 report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, it was remarked that the “largesse of the security and state-building effort” in Afghanistan encouraged private contractors to keep quiet about waste and corruption.

But irrespective of who is to blame for the capitulation of the state, the world must quickly turn its attention to the victors. The Taliban may be keen to present themselves as having evolved—a spokesman has already granted a television interview to a female anchor, while another has promised women that they will be allowed to work and study—but their history is not one that inspires much confidence. Whether these conciliatory gestures are reflective of a genuine shift, or a cynical attempt to console NATO for abandoning the Afghan people, is a question that will be answered in the coming weeks and months. What is already obvious is that the Taliban have become much more media savvy than they were 20 years ago—and that they are fairly well informed about their image abroad. Pakistan and the world will have to watch them very closely.

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