Author : Happymon Jacob

Issue BriefsPublished on Apr 06, 2023
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

US-Pakistan Deal on the Taliban


The US-Pakistan deal is as simple as it can get: Pakistan will cooperate with the US to hunt Al Qaeda and in return the US will not annihilate the Taliban which serves Pakistani strategic interests in the region. While Seymour M. Hersh ( The New Yorker , ’The Deal’ 08-03-04) hits the nail on the head when he argues that Pakistan has allowed the US to conduct military operations in order to stem US criticism against Pakistan for not punishing A Q Khan for wholesaling nuclear materials to other countries, there is more to the deal than what is pointed out by Hersh.

The current US-Pak joint military operations which are taking place in the Pak-Afghan border in Wana located 190 kms. west of Islamabad, and in areas between Khanozai and Quetta do not aim to finish off the Taliban, but to uproot the Al Qaeda. The dividing lines between the Taliban and Al Qaeda are clear, so are the dividends for the parties involved in such convenient divisions. While the Al Qaeda, deserted by Afghans and Pakistanis alike, hunted down by the Americans and hated by the world, is on the wane, the Taliban is on the rise.

The US wants Bin Laden and finish off the Al Qaeda as they have done enough harm to their own creators, but at the same time it needs the Pakistani help in staging the grand finale. Pakistan knows only too well that collaborating with the US in hunting down Al Qaeda will mean a lot of pain for it but it still has to do it. The bargain for Pakistani establishment, however, is the US approval to let Taliban or ’moderate Taliban’ as they are called by the US and the Pakistanis, to remain in existence.

Pakistani Support to the Taliban

That the successive Pakistani governments have supported the Taliban needs no explanation. And that the Taliban is fast resurrecting and perpetrating deadly attacks in parts of Afghanistan is also well established by now. What is probably not very well understood is that these seemingly disparate attacks by the Taliban and the various events unfolding in the region have a well planned strategic design clearly suiting some players.

After the banishment of the Taliban, or as it was claimed, from Afghanistan, the world was made to believe that the Taliban is no more. Hard evidence, however, tells us that it is not true. In fact, an accommodative approach towards the Taliban was adopted soon after US victory in Afghanistan. President Musharraf, addressing a news conference in October 2001 in Islamabad, said that ’moderate Taliban’ should be part of any coalition government in Afghanistan. He thinks that this is the way to achieve national integration in Afghanistan. Addressing the same press conference Colin Powell had also echoed the same opinion. In the same year, Pakistan also made efforts to talk to former Afghan King Zahir Shah to get him to accept the ’moderate Taliban’ formula. On his part, Karzai has made extensive efforts to talk to ’moderate Taliban’ so that his regime survives. If he can’t stem the increasing violence in the country, the US will certainly take him to task. Worse still, Pakistani efforts to gain Afghanistan back also includes winning back the notorious criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Pakistani emissaries met Hekmatyar’s men in early 2004 and told him that if he listens to Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan, he will be given a share of power in Afghanistan and his son-in-law Dr. Ghairat Baheer who is currently in US custody, will be released. The negotiations are still on.

Who in Pakistan Support them?

In Pakistan, support for the Taliban mainly comes from three groups: some sections of the Pashtuns, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the disgruntled elements in the Pakistani military. Many Pashtuns in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) are relatives of the Taliban members and leaders and so are loyal to their kith and kin at the time of need. As the US attack on Afghanistan started taking place, many Taliban members went back to NWFP and took shelter there in homes and madrassas. The MMA members who are in power in NWFP and Balochistan are actively providing support to the Taliban due to their own feelings against the policies of the US and Karzai and, of course, their own extremist ideology. In September 2003, Hafiz Hameedullah, brother of Hafiza Hamadullah who is health minister in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, was arrested for alleged links to the Taliban and for providing logistical help to them to attack targets in Afghanistan.

While in the recent past many extremist elements have been purged from the Pakistani army, it is foolhardy to believe that there is no support base for the Taliban within the Pakistani military. In September 2003, Pakistani military purged some of its officers who had their familial roots in NWFP. In August 2003, Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) of the US arrested a Pakistani army Major and three of his subordinates in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. In August 2003, Afghan officials had claimed that they had details of a Pakistani ISI Colonel who was working along with some Mullahs in the Zabul province to attempt attacks on Afghanistan. Last year, Khalid Mohammed, Al Qaeda Chief of Operations, was arrested at the home of Ahmed Abdul Quboos, a member of Jammat-e-Islami. Quboos’ brother is also a Pakistani army Major. In August 2003, three Pakistani army officers, including Assistant Adjutant-General and Quartermaster-General, Lt. Col. Khalid Abbassi and one Major Atta, were arrested in Pakistan on charges of helping Khalid Mohammed.

Why do they Support the Taliban?

The reasons behind the support extended by these groups to the Taliban are not too difficult to understand. As mentioned earlier, Pushtuns support the Taliban because of ethnic affinity, and the Pashtun code of honor – Pashtun Wali – make them duty-bound to protect those who seek their shelter. Secondly, Pushtuns do not recognize the Durand Line -one of the most rugged and porous borders in the world at that – separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, since they do have an urge to have a separate Pushtun land of their own, they find the Taliban comrades in arms for most reasons. Moreover, the Taliban is a Pushtun force. Many Pushtuns are also unhappy with the present Karzai regime in Kabul propped up by the US since they think it is dominated by the northern warlords. This essentially makes them posture themselves against both the US and Karzai, which means support for the Taliban.

Sections of the Pakistani military have their own share of grievances against Musharraf for supporting the US in Afghanistan, allowing the US army to enter Pakistani territory, scaling down violence in Kashmir and cracking down on the extremist elements in Pakistan. The only way out for them at this juncture is to extend tacit support to the Taliban. The MMA, which is in government in both Balochistan and NWFP, has always supported the Taliban and continues to do so unto this day. The fact that they also support the Pakistani government as a coalition partner in the Jamali government speaks a lot about the government’s soft approach to the Taliban. The ongoing crackdown on militants in both the provinces therefore has to be seen in the context of two things: one, the drive is against Al Qaeda and not Taliban, two, it is the central-government appointed governors who are instrumental in these raids, not the local governments.

Where are the Support Bases?

Where in Pakistan does the Taliban get its support from? As is well known, most of the emerging Taliban’s strongholds in Pakistan are in NWFP and Balochistan. Mullah Dadullah, one of the 10 members of the Leadership Council set up by Taliban leader Mullah Omar, was earlier under the protection of Kakar tribesmen in Balochistan. Presently, he is said to be sheltered by the Pashtun businessmen in Karachi. Another member of the group, Maulvi Sadiq Hameed is reportedly recruiting youngsters in Balochistan. Reports last year indicated that hundreds of ’Sarbaz’, the new Taliban recruits, from Balochistan’s madrassas are involved in the deadly attacks in Afghanistan.

Afghan security officials have confirmed that they have intercepted messages from Mullah Dadullah in Quetta ordering attacks in Afghanistan. A case in point is when his voice was detected while he was ordering his men to kill the occupants of a Red Cross vehicle in Afghanistan’s Hilmand province last year. Today, it has become a common practice for Taliban members to hold press conferences and cabinet type meetings in Quetta. The Taliban is also recruiting from among the unemployed youth in the Afghan refugee camps in Chaman, Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi. Men roaming the streets wearing the distinctive black or white robes or black or white turbans typical of the Taliban are a common sight in Quetta today.

In February this year, US soldiers arrested seven Gurbaz tribesmen three kms. from the Pak-Afghan border for alleged links with Al Queda. Gurbaz tribesmen are reportedly operating from within Pakistan. The Haqqania madrassa near the Khyber Pass in Pakistan is said to be providing cadres to the Taliban. The madrassa has the fame of having contributed some of the top leaders of the Taliban movement. One of the methods adopted by the Taliban in South Waziristan is to get help from local criminals and to recruit unemployed young men to its fold.

Spin Boldak (an Afghan town that borders Pakistan) and areas close to Kudakhel Pass are suspected to be Taliban entry points to Afghanistan. Various reports indicate that Mullah Dadullah, Maulvi Akthar Usmani, Mullah Brader and Mullah Hafiz Majid are Taliban leaders wanted by Afghanistan and are hiding in Pakistan. Last year, the Karzai government handed over a list to Pakistan which contained names of some top terrorists suspected to be perpetrating attacks in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has not been very cooperative in this regard. In November last year, US forces released former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Muttawakil (He is wanted by India for his key role in the hijack of Indian passenger aircraft IC-814) as the US wanted him to talk to the ’moderate Taliban’ and bring them in to the Afghan coalition government. Reports say that many former Taliban members released by both the US and the afghan government are today at the forefront of anti-government operations in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan government has, however, handed over Al Qadea leaders like Abu Zabaydah (March 2002), Ramzi Binalahibh (September 2002), Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (March 2003) and Walid B’Attash (April 2003). Pakistan is careful to distinguish the Taliban from Al Qaeda.

Dr. Timothy D. Hoyt, Professor at the US Naval War Collage, in his testimony to the US House Committee on International Relations in October 2003 said that there is “substantial support for Al Qaeda and Taliban within Pakistan’s government, military and intelligence services”. This view was echoed by Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in November 2003. The Afghan Ambassador to India, Masood Khalili, confirms that the Taliban is flowing back from Pakistan.

What is the Game Plan?

What is the game plan? The win-some-lose-some game is being played out to benefit players like the US, Pakistan and the Karzai government. An Afghanistan without elements of the Taliban would be disastrous for Pakistani interests as India will then have a larger role to play in the region and Pakistan will stand to lose its strategic depth in Afghanistan. While Al Qaeda is mostly of foreign origin and not very loyal to Pakistan, Taliban has local roots and will remain loyal to Pakistan to a great extant. Thus the Taliban is Pakistan’s key to its interests in Afghanistan. Moreover, if there is peace in Afghanistan, it is even possible that the pushtuns will start asking for a separate Pushtunistan which will be detrimental to Pakistani interests. The US needs their continued military influence in the region and has to deliver to the domestic American public on the Taliban before the elections which are due eight months down the line. So it is in the best interests of the US to let Pakistan have what they want (Taliban’s continued existence) and root out Al Qaeda form the region. This will also limit Indian and Chinese influence in the region. As far as Karzai is concerned, he has no ambitions but to get reelected as president in the coming elections. For this he has to have the blessings of the US and, secondly, have relative peace and stability in the country. The best bet, therefore, for him is to negotiate with the ’moderate Taliban’.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.