Raw government documents on the Afghanistan war released by the Wikileaks website added credence to the widely-made charge that Pakistan underhandedly supports Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Pakistani generals have regularly dismissed the idea of collaboration with the Taliban. "We would obviously like to fix these rogues. They are killing our own people and are certainly not friends of this country," General Ahmed Shuja Pasha was quoted in a 2009 book as saying.
Yet Pakistan does have compelling state interest that could argue for support of the Taliban.
For decades, Pakistan has worked to ensure its western border with Afghanistan is safe so that it could focus on its eastern border with arch-rival India.
A Taliban-influenced government in Kabul would help Pakistan deal with some of its biggest internal and external threats. The Taliban would side with Pakistan against India, rather than sandwich Pakistan between two unfriendly governments. They would also remove the threat of support from Kabul for Pashtun and Baloch ethnic separatism within Pakistan.
“For Pakistan, an Afghanistan under Pakistani influence or at least a benign Afghanistan is a matter of overriding strategic importance,” writes George Friedman, head of the Austin, Tex.-based intelligence group Stratfor.
“The region’s main ethnic group, the Pashtun, stretch across the Afghan-Pakistani border. Moreover, were a hostile force present in Afghanistan … Pakistan would face threats in the west as well as the challenge posed by India in the east.”
In the 1990s, Pakistani intelligence was the “angel investor” for the startup Taliban movement. Islamabad stuck with Mullah Omar and his band as they seized Kabul and much of the country, drew the ire of the international community, and were recognized by only two other foreign governments.
When the US came into Afghanistan on the heels of 9/11, it worked through anti-Taliban warlords – factions long supported by India. The government in Kabul still draws heavily from these factions.
While there have been rapprochement efforts between Kabul and Islamabad recently, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is limited in this effort by his governing coalition. Two of his top security ministers have quit over the issue.
On President Karzai’s watch, India has poured money into reconstruction projects and opened new consulates in Afghanistan. Conspiracy theorists in Pakistan claim some of these are used to support ethnic separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.
Pakistan’s bigger ethnic worry about Karzai’s government is Karzai himself. He is a Pashtun, but he does not play the Islam card for his power. The Taliban does. The group, which is made up almost entirely of Pashtuns, makes Islamic – not ethnic – claims to power.
In more stable eras, Afghan governments have talked of a “Greater Afghanistan” that includes Pashtun lands in Pakistan, and have openly refused to accept the 1893 Durand Line that forms the border between the two countries. Such conversation is dead for now in Afghanistan as the country tries to get on its feet.
Pakistani Taliban have killed numerous Pashtun tribal elders and leaders of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party in Pakistan that at one time espoused separatism but now calls only for greater autonomy from Islamabad.
As the Pakistani Taliban grew in strength, US officials argued that the group was a threat to the Pakistani state and since the spring of 2009, Islamabad has gone on the offensive against the Pakistani Taliban. But it has largely left the Afghan Taliban alone.
The notable exception was the roundup by Pakistani forces of half the Quetta Shura, the leadership of Mullah Omar’s faction of the Taliban. The exact reasons for this remain unclear, but the consensus guess among experts is that Pakistan got wind of backroom talks between the Shura and Kabul, which did not involve Islamabad.
Pakistan wants to be involved in the shaping of events in Afghanistan after an eventual US withdrawal.
“Given that they don’t expect the Taliban to be defeated, and given that they are not interested in chaos in Afghanistan, it follows that they will maintain close relations with and support for the Taliban,” writes Mr. Friedman. Yet, Islamabad cannot be open about that because the US is an important ally. “The only rational policy for Pakistan is two-tiered, consisting of overt opposition to the Taliban and covert support for the Taliban.”
However, heavily supporting the Taliban does not necessarily translate to a more stable Afghanistan once the US leaves. When the Soviet military withdrew in 1989, its highly unpopular puppet government held out several years against insurgents.
Top Pakistan analyst Christine Fair says astute Pakistanis realize that a US withdrawal won’t mean a quick Taliban return but a long, messy struggle.
That could mean finding ways to bring some Taliban back into a coalition government – rather than supporting an overthrow by the Taliban.
The powerful Pakistani Army chief, Ashraf Kiyani, has said in recent months that an old doctrine known as “strategic depth” – whereby an Afghan client state could help Pakistan in the event of an Indian invasion – now simply means Pakistan is looking for a sympathetic government in Kabul. “We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it.”
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