The US has completed its precipitous, chaotic and bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan. Over 200 Afghans and 13 US troops were killed, and their blood-soaked remains were strewn over the road and a canal next to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
From the raw videos posted on social media this past Thursday, it looked like Armageddon in Kabul. In the single deadliest terrorist attack in 20 years, the local ISIS affiliate, Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K) had struck the hapless crowds trying to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power. Ten Afghan civilians, including children, were then killed in what the US described as its defensive airstrike on an ISIS-K target.
As the Afghan state collapsed and Taliban swept through the country, the latter freed from the government prisons, thousands of jihadists belonging to its al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allies but also the ones from its ostensible rival, the ISIS-K. The Taliban proclaiming that it has changed, however, did kill an imprisoned former head of the ISIS-K, Abu Omar Khorasani, in an apparent move to seek US and Western approval for its regime. While both the US President Joe Biden and the Taliban have pledged further reprisal against the ISIS-K, Afghanistan seems to be headed for chaos.
Jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s seizure of power
On the other hand, many in Pakistan could barely hide their glee over the turn of events in Afghanistan. Religious seminaries from Quetta to the federal capital Islamabad held ceremonies celebrating the Taliban victory and even hoisted their emirate’s flag in solidarity and admiration. But it was not just the right-wing clergy rejoicing, both the civilian and military parts of Pakistan’s hybrid regime have been reveling in the jihadist triumph over America and the Afghans.
The army-installed Prime Minister Imran Khan has proclaimed that the Taliban has broken the shackles of slavery. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director framed his whole spiel on Afghanistan in the context of India’s influence there over the past two decades and appeared more than satisfied with the sordid outcome in Kabul.
They have a reason to be overjoyed, as they have tried for decades to foist a government of their choosing on Kabul and turn Afghanistan into a subservient client. And the world let them. With the US and UN-designated terrorist Haqqani Network (HQN), once dubbed the veritable arm of Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, now front and centre in Kabul, it is virtually the Pakistan army ruling Kabul.
Being the newest country in the region, Pakistan has always been wary of successive Afghan governments staking irredentist claims over Pashtun regions in the east of Durand Line that came under Pakistani sway, and Kabul’s support for secular Baloch and Pashtun nationalist or separatist movements.
After Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 – with Indian help and military intervention – the General Head Quarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi, and Islamabad became keenly focused on a perceived threat from Afghanistan that has historically remained India-friendly.
With the secular Pashtun and Baloch political entities at the pinnacle of their strength and popularity in the mid-1970s, the GHQ didn’t want to have a repeat of Bangladesh and set out in earnest – with backing from the civilian leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – to groom Afghan Islamists. In the 1980s, the Pakistan army perceived the country’s geographic width as a handicap and formulated the doctrine of seeking strategic depth in Afghan territory to physically retract and regroup its military assets, in case of a conventional war with India.
But with the subcontinent gone nuclear, the idea became more and more about installing a client – not just a Pakistan-friendly – regime in Kabul, not the physical depth. To that effect, Pakistan relentlessly continued with its jihadist project. While the morphology and virulence of Pakistan’s Afghan proxies kept changing from Mujahideen, to Taliban 1.0, to Taliban 2.0, the GHQ’s calculus vis-à-vis Afghanistan has remained unchanged.
Pakistan has claimed that it wants to see an inclusive, stable government in Kabul, but it always saw four scenarios playing out there: a Pakistan-controlled weak Afghanistan, a Pakistan-controlled strong Afghanistan, an India-friendly weak Afghanistan and an India-friendly strong Afghanistan.
The GHQ is desirous of the first scenario, would settle for the second, perhaps bear the third, but won’t tolerate the fourth. Pakistan saw the elimination of its client Taliban emirate 1.0 by the US in October 2001 and the subsequent resurrection of the Afghan state – close with India and cosying up to the Pashtun and Baloch nationalists – as a movement in the wrong direction, on that spectrum.
From the outset, Pakistan’s military planners had calculated that the US does not have the will to stay in Afghanistan and would cut and run sooner or later. America’s geopolitical fickleness and the desire to act as an empire without the strategic patience and persistence of one isn’t exactly a national secret. The GHQ started preparing for the Taliban’s emirate 2.0 the day Mullah Omar fled Kandahar in 2001.
Pakistan’s problems with Taliban
Fundamental problems that marred Pakistan’s original Taliban project have, however, largely remained unchanged. The Taliban is a brutal fighting machine, reliant on terror. Despite its repackaging and media savvy, the Taliban has not morphed into a political entity, let alone a popular one.
The Pakistani Prime Minister may see the Taliban’s victory as liberation, but the Afghan people aren’t really out in the streets in jubilation. The scenes at the Kabul airport and run on the banks didn’t look like a celebration of freedom. Only the Taliban cadres were seen celebrating. A battalion of Pakistani journalists friendly to the ISPR’s narrative was dispatched to Afghanistan to put lipstick on the Taliban pig. The idea is to present the Taliban as moderate, and Afghanistan under their sway as stable and peaceful. So far, the Taliban leadership is keeping up appearances too.
Elements within the Taliban leadership, especially the Doha office, probably are more pragmatic and worldly-wise than the ideologically anchored Quetta Shura, the HQN, and other field commanders. But the increasing brutalities in the provinces indicate the Taliban rank and file hasn’t changed.
While Pakistan is pushing for the Taliban to gain international recognition sooner than later and is likely to itself do it in tandem with China and possibly Russia, it does not want to let the newly-found pragmatism take a life of its own. After all, Pakistan had arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in 2010 to prevent him from negotiating with the then-president, Hamid Karzai. Before that, there’s the case of Mullah Borjan, a key Taliban commander who was killed by his Pakistani-Kashmiri guard, days after he dithered over the Pakistan army’s diktat to kill the former Afghan president Dr. Mohammad Najibullah.
In essence, Pakistan wants to keep Kabul under the Taliban’s heel and the Taliban under its thumb. Pakistan is eager to have the Taliban 2.0 international recognition so that the 1996 experience of an international pariah status is not repeated, but not to the extent where the tail wags the dog. And that is where Pakistan’s most trusted and longest-standing proxy, the HQN comes into play.
Haqqani Network and Pakistan
The HQN’s founder-patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani was the first Pakistani jihadist proxy who took up arms against the Afghan state in 1973 – long before there was any Soviet or American presence in Afghanistan – from his base in Pakistan’s former tribal district, Waziristan. Jalaluddin became part of the Mujahideen in the 1980s, and subsequently hosted Osama bin Laden and his band of Arab transnational jihadists as well the likes of India-oriented terrorists like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.
Al-Qaeda’s military chiefs, Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad Atef) and Abu Ubayda al-Banshiri, and bin Laden fought alongside Jalaluddin against the Afghan and Soviet forces in 1987 in the so-called Battle of Ramadan, which became a recruiting tool for the jihadists.
And that relationship has continued. Along with being Pakistan’s favourite Afghan proxy since the early 1970s, the HQN remains the sword arm of the Taliban, a resolute affiliate of al-Qaeda, and an ardent ally of the TTP. Sirajuddin Haqqani – its current leader and son of Jalaluddin – has been the deputy leader of the Taliban since 2015, as well as being part of the broader al-Qaeda leadership. He once ran a suicide bombers training camp along with the TTP’s Qari Hussain Mehsud, in Pakistan’s, Waziristan. The HQN’s Khalil Haqqani, who is a brother of Jalaluddin and a trusted lieutenant of the Pakistan army, is now in charge of security in Kabul.
Never mind that the HQN is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan including by bombing the US and Indian embassies, its Badri Army’s 313 units, brandishing American-made M-4 rifles and gear, are being showcased by the Taliban as the victors and new custodians of Kabul.
Khalil Haqqani, along with his other nephew Anas, is also leading negotiations with remnants of the fallen Afghan government. The elder Haqqani is no stranger to political wheeling-dealing either. Khalil Haqqani had arbitrated – just miles away from Islamabad – even domestic tribal and sectarian disputes, on behalf of the Pakistan army.
Anas Haqqani, for his part, while playing up his fondness for Pashto poetry in interviews, had no qualms lauding and celebrating suicide bombers the HQN has used to prosecute its unholy war in the service of the Pakistan army. Al-Qaeda has already congratulated the Taliban over its victory and its Sahab media release made it a point to single out Jalaluddin Haqqani, along with the present and past Taliban emirs for praise. And its operatives are coming out of the woodwork. Al-Qaeda’s Amin-ul-Haq, who was Osama bin Laden’s security chief, is back in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.
Whether some of the Taliban leaders have actually softened their stance, putting up a moderation ruse, or being pragmatic, it becomes meaningless due to multiple reasons. The Taliban will not be able to claim ideological purity for long if it were to compromise on its core tenets. It stands to lose face internally as well as to the competitors it is perceived to be compromising with the West or even domestically.
Pakistan had faced a jihadist rebellion, which consolidated into the TTP, when the country signed on to the US War on Terror, even though duplicitously, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A chunk of jihadists saw the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s pragmatism – incidentally called enlightened moderation by himself – as a betrayal of the jihadist cause. Like its patron, General Musharraf, the Taliban will also discover that it is easy to prime human killing machines using ideology, but far more difficult to deprogram and decommission them.
As the ISIS-K terror attacks show, there is a strong competition for ideological purity and brutality that flows from it. Al-Qaeda had lost ground to the ISIS in Iraq and Levant and is likely to make a concerted effort to avert that. And the emirate’s deadliest component the HQN continues to work hand-in-glove with al-Qaeda, making its job easier.
The Taliban is about to announce its emirate government with its emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada installed as za’eem or rahbar (a head of state or supreme leader), Mullah Baradar as the chief executive, a consultative shura, and a cabinet of ministers. It may include some remnants of the fallen republic, as a veneer. With the complete military victory, a collapsed Afghan state, and the US vanquished in humiliation, the Taliban has little incentive to share any actual power.
The Haqqanis are going to get the lion’s share though, both in the transitional and permanent dispensations of the emirate, unlike in 1996 when Jalaluddin Haqqani merely got the ministry of tribal and frontier affairs. This also ensures that Pakistan would now be able to control Afghanistan’s foreign policy but is also likely to pursue the official recognition of the Durand Line as an international border, to which even Mullah Omar had not acquiesced in the Emirate 1.0. Pakistan perceives the Durand Line issue as the other “unfinished agenda of partition”, which it would want to wrap up while its most trusted proxy dominates Kabul.
Pakistan’s calculus is no different than the US national security advisor, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski’s. When asked if he had any regrets over supporting Islamic fundamentalism, which subsequently contributed to future terrorism, Brzezinski had famously said: “Regret what? … What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war? There is little doubt, however, that Pakistan will see another round of jihadist blowback al la TTP and other old and new jihadists, emboldened by the Taliban victory. But for now, it is sticking to its jihadist venture that has Kabul in its vice-like grip.
Whatever the contours of the Taliban government and its foreign policy might be, it is already presiding over an economic catastrophe at home. With basic services suspended, government offices in limbo, state funds frozen, and a zealot band with zero expertise in running a state at the helm, the Afghan people are staring into the abyss.
After having sealed the fate of another generation of Afghans, the world seems to be struggling over how to deal with the Taliban in power. With tens of thousands of Afghans in an exodus, internally displaced or simply exiled within their own homes, a humanitarian crisis looms in Afghanistan. I had heard a Persian quatrain from my Afghan grandfather:
Ba But mi guft Mahi dar tap o taab
Bashad keh ba joo-e-raftah baaz aayed aab
But guft: choon mann o tu gashtem kabab
Bood az pas e marg e mann cheh darya, cheh saraab
(Said a fish near death in pitiless sun
“Does a stream refill, when it ceases to run?”
Quoth a duck: “what matters the source or the sea,
When we are cooked to death and quite undone!”)
After having failed in war, the world powers should act swiftly to avert failure in peace.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.