How A Covert Relationship With The Taliban Backfired For US Ally Pakistan

Taliban Afghanistan

About two weeks after the Taliban retook Afghanistan in 2021, the then head of Pakistan's spy agency arrived at one of Kabul's plushest hotels, smiling, sipping tea and appearing at ease with the militants' return to power.

Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed of Inter-Services Intelligence had reason to believe Pakistan was about to reap the rewards of clandestinely supporting the Taliban in their fight against US-led forces. In return, Pakistan expected the group to help rein in an offshoot at home.

Almost two years later, relations between the Taliban and Pakistan have soured, terrorist attacks by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have jumped and some Taliban leaders are even seeking to establish ties with Pakistan's archrival, India.

The increased instability is adding to the turmoil in a Pakistan buffeted by simultaneous economic and political crises, as the country edges closer to a default, inflation rages and the military instigates a sweeping crackdown against former premier Imran Khan's political party.

Pakistan saw the Taliban as deeply connected to the TTP and able to persuade it to stop its attacks, people familiar with the matter said. The TTP has long said it wants to overthrow the government in Islamabad.

But some Taliban factions strongly oppose helping Pakistan's efforts to fight the TTP, and many are upset the government in Islamabad didn't recognize their regime, according to people familiar with the situation. Hundreds of Taliban fighters also joined the TTP to pursue another holy war, they said.

Pakistan made a "remarkable" miscalculation, said Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan's ambassador to India, a holdover from the country's previous regime who doesn't represent the Taliban.

The TTP carried out the most militant attacks on Pakistani soil last year since 2018. This January, the group killed at least 100 people in a suicide bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar — one of the deadliest attacks in its history. Four people were killed in a suicide car bomb on May 24, which hasn't been claimed by the TTP or other militants.

Some key Taliban members want the group to distance itself from Pakistan and show its independence, people familiar with the matter said. They include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Afghanistan's deputy prime minister for economic affairs who spent years in a Pakistani jail after he was captured in 2010 during the war with the US, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the defense minister and son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, the people said.

Yaqoob has publicly been leading efforts to build relations with India, including urging the Indian government to train Taliban forces.

Others within the Taliban take different positions. Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has said Pakistan's establishment is "un-Islamic" and founded on the legacy of its British colonial rulers, according to a January report by the United States Institute of Peace.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister and leader of a powerful faction, brokered a cease-fire last year between Pakistan and the TTP in a bid to secure a lasting peace, people familiar with the matter said. It lasted about six months.

Some of the Taliban fighters helping the TTP have brought over weapons that the US left behind, including M-16s and sniper rifles with night-vision thermal goggles, the people said. Hundreds of TTP fighters released from a Kabul prison by the Taliban after the group retook power also returned to fight in Pakistan, they added.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, a spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, declined to comment. Inter-Services Public Relations, the military's media wing, didn't answer calls or respond to texts seeking comment.

Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahed and Bilal Karimi didn't answer calls or respond to WhatsApp messages seeking comment. In a statement in February, the TTP said it waged a "sacred war" against Pakistan's army and called on politicians and others not to become an obstacle in this war.

At meetings in Islamabad in May involving Pakistan, China and the Taliban, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said the TTP and Pakistan should hold talks, but he didn't suggest a role for the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban agreed with China and Pakistan to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan.

The US withdrawal "gave impetus to TTP activities," Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry, a spokesman for Pakistan's army, said in a press conference on April 25. Some 239 people, including 137 army officers and soldiers, have been killed in hundreds of insurgent attacks this year, he said.

On their side, the Taliban are upset that Pakistan hasn't recognized their regime, people familiar with the matter said. But doing so would be difficult for Pakistan given the sanctions on the Taliban and Islamabad's need for the International Monetary Fund to approve a stalled bailout package.

Pakistan is designated a major non-NATO ally by the US. While that confers some military and financial advantages, it includes no mutual defense treaty that would obligate American forces to respond in the event of a military attack. Some US lawmakers over the years have sought to remove the status due in part to Pakistani support for the Taliban.

During the war on terror, Pakistan covertly helped the militant group in their attempts to overthrow a US-backed Afghan government that was friendlier with India, and provided refuge and medical assistance to Taliban leaders and fighters, said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, a think tank.

The TTP is the largest and deadliest of about a dozen insurgent groups in Pakistan, with thousands of fighters hailing from the tribal belt.

The group announced its existence in 2007 after Pakistani security forces launched an operation against a prominent mosque in Islamabad that was suspected of sheltering and training Islamic radicals. More than 100 people died in the violence.

The TTP's attacks are increasing just as Pakistan faces several other major issues. Political tensions are at breaking point. More than 10,000 people linked to Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party were arrested in police raids following protests after Khan was arrested in May. Khan and his wife have been placed on a no-fly list. Inflation is accelerating at the fastest pace in Asia, making it difficult for many of the country's more than 220 million people to pay for fuel and food. And negotiations with the IMF are at a critical stage as the international lender has yet to release the funds.

All things considered, the now-retired ISI chief's confidence in Kabul's Serena Hotel is looking ill-advised.

"Pakistan had long banked on the Taliban being its best strategic bet in Afghanistan - a group willing to help Pakistan pursue its interests, including counterterrorism," Kugelman said. "What Pakistan apparently didn't realize was that the Taliban, once it no longer needed a wartime sanctuary in Pakistan, would assert its independence from its former patron and refuse to do its bidding."

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