The Key Role Pakistan Is Playing In U.S.-Taliban Talks

Aug 30, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 9:22 am

A bomb parked under the preacher's pulpit in a mosque likely had a high-profile target: a brother of the Taliban leader. It was seen by the Taliban as a warning to stop their talks with the United States.

The bombing, on Aug. 16, was in Pakistan — on the outskirts of the garrison town of Quetta, near the Afghan border. And its location spotlighted something else: the powerful and uneasy place of Pakistan in these negotiations. Quetta is widely understood to be the base of Afghanistan's Taliban leadership.

Critics have long contended that Pakistan has held some sway over the Taliban by offering them shelter, if not outright support.

Now the country is facilitating negotiations between Washington and the Taliban that will likely see a withdrawal of most foreign troops, in return for the insurgents' promise they won't let Afghanistan be a launchpad for future global terrorist attacks.

People gather at a mosque following a bomb blast in Kuchlak near Quetta, Pakistan, on Aug. 16. Pakistani police say a powerful bomb went off inside the mosque during Friday prayers. Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada and his relatives frequently attend the mosque. One of his brothers was killed in the blast.
Arshad Butt / AP

Taliban officials have said they are close to finalizing an agreement. That is echoed by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who tweeted before a ninth round of talks ended last weekend that his team would "try and close on remaining issues." After this agreement, the Afghan government and Taliban will have their own talks — something the Taliban have yet to agree to, because they see the government as illegitimate.

Analysts say Pakistan is also using these negotiations to try assert its own interests in Afghanistan, by pushing for the Taliban to have an outsize political role in Kabul once foreign forces leave.

"Pakistan is very aware of its strategic importance here," said Madiha Afzal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.

Pakistan may also be trying to leverage its role to press for foreign intervention in its conflict with India over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, something India rejects.

India scaled back autonomy of the parts of Kashmir it controls in early August. That triggered renewed tensions with Pakistan, which fears the move could weaken its own claim to the territory. Pakistani officials have since warned they may redeploy forces from the country's western border with Afghanistan to the eastern border with India.

"We have limited capacity," said Abdul Basit, a retired Pakistani diplomat and president of the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies in Islamabad. "The West, and U.S., should use its influence on India not to create any more problems on our eastern border. That will inevitably create more problems and divert our attention from U.S.-Taliban efforts."

To assist U.S.-Taliban negotiations when they began last year, Pakistan quietly released the co-founder of the Taliban from a Karachi prison. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has since become the Taliban's deputy political leader and chief negotiator.

At the request of President Trump in December, Pakistani officials prodded the insurgents to take negotiations more seriously after the talks appeared to falter, just months after Trump appointed Khalilzad to lead negotiations.

In June, the Pakistani foreign minister hosted Afghan opposition leaders, and Prime Minister Imran Khan hosted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Following a meeting with Trump in Washington last month, Khan said he would host Taliban leaders in Islamabad.

Khan's July 22 White House meeting marked a striking turnaround in Pakistan's recent fortunes. "I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves," Trump said during a joint press conference.

The country's relationship with Washington had earlier unraveled, as President Trump suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and lashed out several times on Twitter, accusing Pakistan of harboring militants the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.

But the extent of Pakistan's sway over the Taliban is unclear, said Stephen Tankel, an associate professor at the American University School of International Service and author of With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.

Pakistan has "long since made a practice of simultaneously trying to downplay their support for the Taliban, while simultaneously trying to argue that any deal with the Taliban has to go through them," he said. "And judging by Imran Khan's reception at the White House, it certainly seems that at least some in the Trump administration have embraced that sense that Pakistan is critical to any deal."

Basit, the retired diplomat, said those expectations were worrying. "We may have some leverage," he said, "but to say that Pakistan should be responsible for a modus vivendi — that would not be fair."

What Pakistan seeks from its involvement in negotiations is stability across the border in Afghanistan and an Afghan government that includes the Taliban, said Shahid Latif, a retired Pakistani air vice marshal.

While some may play down Pakistan's influence over the Taliban, Latif laid out the country's expectations, role and preferences in stark terms.

"Pakistan is supporting Taliban," Latif said, to be part of the regular politics of Afghanistan. "They should be the part of the government," he said. "The formula, different options can be worked out, how much of the participation do they need" — all that could be negotiated between the Taliban and Pakistan beforehand, he said.

"We need to talk to Taliban, reach an amicable solution with them and then, based on practicality of that solution, we should approach the Americans," Latif said, referring to the Pakistani government and military.

Reaching an "amicable solution" seems reasonable to Pakistani officials, who see the insurgents as likely to represent their interests — and to be hostile to overtures from India. Western-backed politicians in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani, are seen by Pakistan as friendly to India, Latif said. That makes Pakistan uncomfortable.

"Any [Afghan] government that is dependent on India, and that is linked with India, will certain[ly] not have any good feelings for Pakistan, so that, obviously [is] unacceptable," Latif said. "We do not mean that there should be a government which should create enmity with India, but at the same time, it should not send a negative signal to Pakistan."

Pakistan will most likely push to delay Afghan presidential elections — set for Sept. 28 — and push for a power-sharing agreement, said Basit. "If elections are held and we have a new [Afghan] president, that will further complicate the situation on the ground," Basit explained. The "next step," he suggested, would be to "postpone elections and come up with a national unity government."

That sort of outcome is keenly feared by many Afghans, who have long resented Pakistan's involvement in their country's affairs — particularly its support for the Taliban. Afghans fear the current negotiations will embolden the Taliban to crush their fragile democracy and seize power at a time when the country's security will be vulnerable due to the withdrawal of foreign forces.

"A best-case scenario would be an undemocratic return of the Taliban to the political realm," wrote Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in a CNN op-ed. "If Taliban rule in their current areas of influence is any indication, it could also mean severe regressions on individual rights. The worst-case scenario would be a return to civil war and chaos."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're seeing signs of hope for a peace deal in Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is currently reviewing a draft agreement reached by the U.S. and the Taliban. He has promised a response in coming days. Meanwhile, though, the violence is far from over in Afghanistan. This weekend, there were two attacks Afghan officials say were carried out by the Taliban. And there is violence in neighboring Pakistan, too. A bombing there earlier this month highlights the powerful and uneasy role that country plays in these peace negotiations. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Critics have long contended that Pakistan has held some sway over the Taliban by offering them shelter, if not outright support. But the extent of Pakistan's influence over the insurgents isn't clear. And that's deliberately so. This is Stephen Tankel, professor in the School of International Service at the American University.

STEPHEN TANKEL: They have long since made a practice of simultaneously trying to downplay their support for the Taliban while simultaneously trying to argue that any deal with the Taliban has to go through them.

HADID: But Pakistan has enough influence that it's been assisting negotiations. They're expected to allow most American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan, in return for the insurgents agreeing not to allow the country to become a base for global terror attacks. To kickstart negotiations last October, Pakistan released the co-founder of the Taliban. That man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is now the Taliban's chief negotiator. And in December, at President Trump's request, Pakistani officials prodded the insurgents to take negotiations more seriously. That was after talks appeared to falter. This is Madiha Afzal at the Brookings Institution.

MADIHA AFZAL: I think Pakistan is very aware of its strategic importance here.

HADID: She says Pakistan is trying to assert its own interests in Afghanistan.

AFZAL: Pakistan doesn't want huge conflict in Afghanistan, but it always wants to be relevant. The Taliban make Pakistan more relevant than the Afghan government, which, you know, has issues with Pakistan.

HADID: The key is when foreign forces leave and Afghans negotiate a political future. Abdul Basit is a retired diplomat and president of the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies in Islamabad. He says Pakistan wants Afghans to delay their upcoming presidential elections.

ABDUL BASIT: If the elections are held and we have a new president in Afghanistan, that will further complicate the situation on the ground. Then perhaps the next step would be to postpone this election and come up with a national unity government.

HADID: That will include the Taliban. But how much power should they have? Shahid Latif is a retired air vice marshal. He often helps journalists understand the thinking of the Pakistani military.

SHAHID LATIF: I think Pakistan is supporting Taliban in getting to the mainstream part, which means they should be part of the government. And perhaps the world will not accept Taliban taking over complete Afghanistan. So I think we need to talk to Taliban, reach an amicable solution with them.

HADID: Latif says the current Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, is seen as friendly to their bitter enemy, India.

LATIF: Any government that is dependent on India will certainly not have any good feelings for Pakistan. So that is obviously unacceptable.

HADID: Afghans have long resented Pakistan's involvement in their country's affairs and their relations with the Taliban. Some fear if the insurgents are part of an interim government, they'll impose their harsh version of Islamic law or just seize power outright. But Basit, the retired diplomat, says Pakistan wants to prevent chaos from engulfing Afghanistan and potentially destabilizing his country, as well. Dear Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

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