A day after the Taliban’s gun-toting militants entered Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan could not hide his glee. He was launching a government education programme in Islamabad on August 16, where he referred to the Taliban’s return to power as Afghans breaking the “shackles of slavery”.
For the Taliban’s cheerleaders in Islamabad and at the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi, it’s indeed time for celebration. Pakistan finally defeated America in Afghanistan with the help of America, just as Hamid Gul, the former chief of its military spy agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), had boastfully predicted in 2014. Pakistan perhaps thinks it’s now on the cusp of gaining in Afghanistan Islamabad’s long-cherished ‘strategic depth’.
Pakistan’s signature is well etched in the blood-soaked history of Afghanistan, dating back to the 1970s, when it started supporting the Islamists opposed to the Mohammad Daud Khan government in Kabul – a dispensation that was backed by the Soviet Union. Pakistan helped the US Central Intelligence Agency arm the ‘Afghan Mujahideen’ to fight the Soviet army, which had marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The Mujahideen continued to receive support from Pakistan and the US even after the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Though the Mujahideen came to power in Kabul through an accord signed at Peshawar in Pakistan in April 1992, the ISI was unhappy as the new regime, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, was friendly to India. It supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s offensive against the Rabbani government, leading to a fierce conflict that resulted in the death of about 50,000 people in Kabul.
It was in the early 1990s that Pakistan’s Internal Security Minister Naseerullah Babar, a former military officer, asked the ISI to look for new assets in Afghanistan. The ISI mid-wifed the Taliban, which was born with Pashtun Talib or students of the seminaries set up for refugees from Afghanistan in northern Pakistan. It soon spread its influence across southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban occupied Kandahar in November 1994 and, with militants recruited, trained and armed by the ISI in Pakistan swelling its ranks, it took over Kabul in September 1996.
Pakistan was among the few nations that continued diplomatic relations with the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which, led by its Amir al-Mu’minin, Mullah Omar, ran a medieval rule, enforcing a strict version of Shariah, banning TV, denying women the right to education and work, carrying out summary executions in public. The Taliban’s collusion with anti-India terror outfits based in Pakistan became evident during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999.
The US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after Mullah Omar’s ‘guest’ Osama bin Laden led Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terror attacks. Omar fled to Quetta in Pakistan, where the ISI hosted him till his death in 2013 – two years after US Navy SEALs hunted down bin Laden at his lair close to the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad.
Pakistan helped the Taliban to not only survive over the past two decades but also to regroup, even as it maintained the charade of supporting the US and NATO forces in its “war on terror” in Afghanistan and of facilitating the talks between the US and the Taliban. The ISI was so desperate to control the Afghan ‘peace process’ that it arrested Omar’s successor Mullah Baradar in Pakistan when he started talks with Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan on his own initiative. Baradar eventually fell in line and, when he returned to negotiate with the US and Afghan governments in Doha, it was with the blessings of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which meticulously set the stage for his ascent to power in Kabul.
The Taliban regaining control of Kabul will give Rawalpindi’s planners “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in case of an Indian military advance against Pakistan. India’s development projects in Afghanistan and its popularity among the people of the war-ravaged country had given Rawalpindi the jitters. Even if New Delhi does not sever its diplomatic relations with Kabul, the ISI will now try to make the Taliban restrict India’s presence in Afghanistan and hit its strategic interests in Central Asia. The weapons and ammunitions the US supplied to the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces have fallen into the hands of the Taliban over the past few weeks, and a part of the booty may soon find its way to anti-India terrorist groups based in Pakistan, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. New Delhi has reasons to worry about the cascading effects of the Taliban’s return to power on the security scenario in Kashmir. Islamabad will also try to scuttle India’s plans for connectivity through Afghanistan to Central Asia and Europe.
The celebrations in Rawalpindi and Islamabad are unlikely to last forever, though. Pakistan may soon have to deal with a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan. The Taliban may be ensconced in Kabul, but Northern Alliance veterans Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Muhammad Noor have not yet given up. Ghani’s Vice-President Amrullah Saleh has declared himself ‘caretaker president’ and is trying to mount a resistance against the Taliban. A new civil war may again break out in Afghanistan and the revival of the Covid-hit economy of Pakistan could be stymied by such uncertainty and instability in its western neighbourhood. The Taliban in Afghanistan has ideological links with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had carried out the terrorist attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 149 people, including 132 children. The TTP congratulated the Taliban after its militants entered Kabul on August 15. The possibility of collusion between the two cannot be ruled out.
Monsters often turn against their own masters eventually, not only in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but in the real world, too.