Pakistan: Afghanistan’s unlikely partner in Afghan Taliban negotiations
Fifteen years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and evicted the Afghan Taliban government from power, the Afghan Taliban has made a strong comeback and threatens to destabilize the developing democratic system and infrastructure. Since July of 2015, Islamabad has brokered talks, known as the Doha Dialogue, between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. The Afghan Taliban has since refused to take part in the third round of negotiations until foreign forces leave Afghanistan, and it is likely that it is up to Islamabad to pressure them to return to the negotiating table.
This begs the question: what explains Pakistan’s central role in the negotiations?
The irony of the situation is that Islamabad had a hand in the founding of the Afghan Taliban in the early 1990s. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which lasted for a decade starting in 1979, Afghan refugees were educated and radicalized in madrassas, or religious schools, in Pakistan. Although Islamabad denies that it was responsible for radicalizing the Afghan youth, the Pakistan government has always held an interest in establishing a friendly government in Afghanistan, and so this training of the Afghan Taliban, which Pakistan believed it could control, was its fallback plan. In fact, Pakistan was one of just three countries to recognize the Afghan Taliban government, which was in power from 1996 to 2001; it was also the last country to cut diplomatic ties with it.
Whether or not Pakistan set up the Afghan Taliban, the fact remains that Pakistan holds a special relationship with the militant group. In March of 2016, Pakistani Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz publicly announced that Pakistan held special leverage against the Afghan Taliban since its senior leadership lives in Pakistan. Although this fact was widely known - Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, was found less than a mile from an elite Pakistani military academy after a decade of being in hiding - it was the first time that Pakistan publicly acknowledged the fact.
However, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have recently come under strain. Aziz’s admission, coupled with the fact that the Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership congregated upon Pakistani soil to pledge allegiance to their new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, are seen in Afghanistan as evidence of Pakistan’s state-level support for the Afghan Taliban. Worse still, Islamabad was implicated in the Afghan Taliban’s attacks on the Kabul international airport in August 2015 by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani subsequently blamed Pakistan for harboring terrorist training camps and for sending “messages of war.”He also rejected Pakistan’s offers to facilitate further dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, and ended the intelligence-sharing agreement between the two states.
Although the future for bilateral relations seems bleak, Pakistan and Afghanistan share so many security interests that it seems inevitable that the states will collaborate, assuming Afghanistan can persuade its counterpart to do so.
The Afghan Taliban has made significant gains since its 2006 resurgence: in September 2015, the Afghan Taliban captured Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth largest city; in March 2016, Afghan Taliban gunmen stormed government buildings in Afghanistan’s largest province, Helmand, before being subdued by security forces. To make matters worse, in April 2015, the Islamic State established itself in Afghanistan by striking out with a bombing in Jalalabad.
All of these developments matter to Pakistan. Several terrorist groups, not all of which have positive relations with Islamabad, dwell in the federally administered tribal area on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The umbrella organization Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban or TPP, has declared Islamabad’s government its enemy for aligning with the United States in its post-9/11 policies in South Asia. The organization has launched attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians, and in 2014 was responsible for the deaths of 1,744 civilians.
Although Pakistan seems an unlikely partner in bringing stability to Afghanistan, especially given its involvement in the founding and radicalization of the Afghan Taliban, Afghanistan lacks another choice. The Afghan Taliban is making significant territorial gains and is unlikely to be willing to negotiate when it is enjoying major victories; the central government in Afghanistan lacks significant control over areas outside of Kabul; and Pakistan seems to be the only player the Afghan Taliban will listen to. Therefore, the Afghan government should do everything in its power to try and persuade Pakistan to force the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table.