In 1999 when Parweez Musharaf, then the Pakistani Army Chief, grabbed power in a bloodless coup, said that the best strategy against the Taliban was to recognize them. Musharaf noted: “the fact, a majority of 55 percent of Afghans are from the Pashtun tribe[s]. Afghanistan has always been ruled by the Pashtuns and there should be a change of strategy right away. You should make political overtures to win the Pashtuns over.”
Musharraf’s saying, though flawed it be, depicts a political reality. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Pakistani establishment has been supporting a religious Pashtun group to take over assignment of government in Kabul. In the eyes of the Pakistani generals, a group of Muslim Pashtuns are the only force that can ensure Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan.
Taliban are ‘our boys’
The narrative General Parweez Musharaf was promoting indeed dated back to reign of civilian government of Pakistan led by Benazir Bhutto. Even before Musharraf’s takeover, Pakistan’s Afghan policy was focused on support for the Taliban. Over years, government leaderships changed in Islamabad but sympathies for the Taliban, both at official and personal levels, persisted. Though the Benazir government denied any sort of support for the Taliban, Pakistani army, most notably the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) covertly supported the Taliban movement. Even at one point, Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister Nasrullah Babar said: “They are our boys.”
After the emergence of the Taliban movement, Pakistan was quick to recognize the Islamic Emirate of Taliban in Afghanistan. Though many things shifted in political dynamics of the region, Pakistan’s Taliban policy remained as defined as it was in late 1990s. This policy was centered to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. From the perspective of the Pakistani generals and policy makers, Afghanistan is the only country that can serve as Pakistan’s backyard in south Asia. The Pakistani policy makers are convinced that a hardline religious group is a potential force that can counter India’s clout in the region.
The dilemma of Kashmir and Pakistan’s Taliban policy
From its very inception, the state of Pakistan has been in some sort of political and territorial crisis with its powerful Hindu-dominated neighbor, India. The legendary Kashmir was cut into two after the Redcliff Line was drawn to separate the state of Pakistan from India. The two nuclear states of Pakistan and India thus far have fought four wars over Kashmir and have had several round dialogues to resolve the issue but in vain. Though the two nations have appeared trying to resolve Kashmir issue, they have done very little to shift policies in regard to the 72-year-old conflict of Kashmir.
Pakistani policy makers, however, have had a strong perception that the Taliban protégé is the only force that can secure Pakistan’s political interest and objective in Afghanistan. For Pakistani generals, who have maintained full control over Pakistan’s foreign policy, more control over Kabul government, means more influence against the enemy India in the region.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy is a direct upshot of the Kashmir dilemma. Islamabad’s major objective of supporting the Taliban is clear: it wants more control over policies made in future Kabul governments. Though the Pakistani military has masked its pro-Taliban policy under greater national interest, in reality, the Pakistanis have been trying to reduce threats posed by India.
Peace talks and possible consequences
After nearly three months of hiatus, on Saturday, December 07, the US and Taliban resumed talks in Doha, Qatar. A Taliban spokesperson told press that they had picked up the talks from where it ended in September of this year.
There is very little doubt that Pakistan played a major role in emergence of the Taliban movement and it plays a decisive part in bringing them back to power sharing table. The Taliban could not have survived if Pakistan did not move to provide them with sanctuary in the aftermath of 9/11. The country harbored them to use when needed.
The Taliban’s reconciliation strategy has been focused on one thing: a direct talks with the US and complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Like two other parties—the US and the Afghan government—the Taliban representatives have been pressing on Afghan peace process but they speak very little about post-talks environment.
The Taliban negotiators certainly do not represent Taliban commanders on the field when it comes to issues like woman rights, human rights, and the constitution of Afghanistan. They may give some guarantees but there is no defined mechanism to push the group remain adhered to possible guarantees they make.
Politically, Afghanistan is diversified country and more divided when it comes to power struggle and power sharing. All ethnic groups, who are struggling for power, want to have a share in power. Any political settlement made out of domestic reality of the country is doomed to fail. Pakistan’s tight control over the Taliban pushes the Afghan peace talks walk on tightrope. A durable peace in the country comes out of a rational peace talks. Any influence by any stakeholder will tilt peace process in favor of any group other than the process. If the Taliban are reality of Afghanistan, the anti-Taliban voices—the urban population, the Afghan women and anti-Taliban forces—are also reality of the country.