Pakistani troops patrol along the Afghanistan border at Big Ben post in Khyber district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on August 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – Pakistan’s autonomous military has hijacked the nation’s Afghanistan policy, a power play that aims to shield the Taliban’s takeover and its implications for everything from terror threats to new refugee flows from democratic debate.

Known for its outsized foreign policy role, Pakistan’s security agencies tacitly supported the Taliban while it was fighting US, NATO and Afghan national forces, including by providing the militant group sanctuaries, training, arms, help in fundraising and even modern medical care for its wounded fighters.

Analysts and observers have suggested Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency provided strategic battlefield advice that helped to steer the Taliban’s blitzkrieg takeover as soon as US troops withdrew – a lightning strike strategy that US and Western intelligence agencies clearly didn’t foresee.

An August 24 Brookings Institute report entitled “Pakistan’s problematic victory in Afghanistan” said, “It is fair to assume that the ISI helped the Taliban plan its blitzkrieg this summer.”

“The Taliban’s seizing of the north reflected memories of its enemies using bases there in the late 1990s to resist the Taliban and the CIA using those facilities to bring down the Taliban in 2001,” the report said, adding: “The plan also prioritized seizing border crossings, especially in the west, which kept Iran from providing aid to its Shiite Hazara allies in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan’s security agencies, which trained Taliban founder Mullah Omar in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s invasion, now have a vested interest in the Taliban’s success in forming an “inclusive” government in Kabul that is internationally recognized and not ostracized and sanctioned.

While Russia and China have made clear they will recognize a Taliban-led Islamic Emirate government, the US and Western nations now rushing to evacuate their nationals and local allies have not made their positions clear.

It is not clear if Pakistan genuinely pressed the Taliban to make a deal with Ghani’s government, which some in Islamabad saw as a certain threat due to its Pashtun nationalist orientation.

Afghanistan’s ousted president Ashraf Ghani gestures as he speaks during the first day of the Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, at the Loya Jirga Hall in Kabul. Photo: AFP / Press Office of President of Afghanistan

Ironically, the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) suicide bomb attack on Kabul’s airport on August 26 which killed over 180 including at least 13 US military members could help the Taliban’s cause as it is able to posture as an opposed and more moderate force.

But Prime Minister Imran Khan’s military-aligned government clearly fears potential blowback as a “#SanctionPakistan” social media campaign launched by Afghan netizens opposed to the Taliban and the human tragedy its takeover has already brought gathers resonance in Pakistan and even at the United Nations.   

Pakistani ministers and government advisors are now busy conducting shuttle diplomacy seeking global acceptance of the Taliban, with some reputedly suggesting that the world will be at risk of a “second 9/11” if a Taliban-led inclusive government is not globally recognized.

“Mark my words, if the mistakes of the 90’s were repeated and Afghanistan abandoned again, the outcome will be absolutely the same. A security vacuum filled by undesirable elements will endanger the world peace,” Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yousaf was recently quoted saying.

“The world must not repeat the mistake it made after the Soviet withdrawal,” Pakistan Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umer tweeted on Sunday (August 29).

“This is the time for the global community to engage and not isolate Afghanistan. A fraction of the money spent on the war in Afghanistan, spent honestly on development can enhance global security.”

These official messages followed Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s whirlwind tour last week to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to build a “regional consensus” on the acceptability of the Taliban’s seizure of power.  

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks during a press conference over the ongoing situation in Afghanistan at the foreign ministry in Islamabad, August 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Significantly, Pakistan’s position on events in Afghanistan, which promises to spur a new influx of refugees and could energize Islamist militant and terror groups to ramp up attacks in Pakistan, has not been subject to a parliamentary debate.

Opposition parties have urged the government to convene a joint parliamentary session to develop a national consensus on how to respond to the various challenges posed by the Taliban’s takeover. Those democratic calls, which could call for answers to questions about ISI’s role in the Taliban’s battlefield successes, have so far fallen on deaf ears.  

Instead, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa invited some 50 lawmakers including from opposition parties to attend a scheduled four-hour briefing on Afghanistan in the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi today (August 30.) (The meeting was ongoing when Asia Times went to press.)

In early July, when the Taliban was making rapid territorial gains across Afghanistan, Pakistani security agencies called upon opposition parties not to politicize the nation’s response to the offensive.

At the time, military intelligence warned politicians that “strategic challenges” and a potential “policy shift” in relations with Afghanistan could have far-reaching national consequences and that they should avoid divisive politics on the issue.

Zahid Khan, secretary of information of the opposition Awami National Party, told Asia Times that the Afghan issue has never been discussed in parliament and that a democratic consensus is needed on an issue that could have major ramifications for Pakistan’s standing in the world.  

”We do not blame dictators for taking decisions unilaterally but the present government – which claimed to have a privilege of being democratic – should not follow the undemocratic norms of dictatorship and bring all the strategic issues before the parliament for consideration before making solo decisions on issues of national importance,” Zahid said.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the staff’s headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan, August 2021. Photo: AFP via Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik / Vladimir Astapkovich

He claimed that the Khan’s government had no clear Afghan policy and that statements made and steps taken to date are pushing Pakistan into global isolation.

“It was a matter of further concern that the parliament is unaware about the steps already taken by the government or is being taken in the wake of the emerging situation in Afghanistan, including permission afforded to those who are leaving Afghanistan,” Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Mian Raza Rabbani told Asia Times.

Meanwhile, military-like moves are being made.

On August 26, the government took control of reservations at all major hotels in Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar for several weeks to arrange accommodation for thousands of foreigners including diplomats, staff of foreign missions, journalists and others being evacuated from Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry granted 21-day transit visas to these foreigners, most of which are expected to transit to their home countries.

Security measures in and around the hotels have been beefed up and police and paramilitary personnel have been put on high alert in Islamabad – a recognition that the foreigners could be targeted for attack by terror groups that have recently intensified their operations in the country.

A Pakistan army soldier stands guard in a border area, February 5, 2021. Photo: AFP / Muhammad Daud

But the arrival of hundreds of US troops at Islamabad airport on August 29 has raised other questions. An interior ministry source confirmed to Asia Times that US military personnel had landed in the country from Afghanistan but would not comment on the reason for their arrival.

The opposition is already probing the unexplained arrival of US troops. “This is yet another U-turn of Imran Khan government, which has earlier blown their own horn on refusing military bases to the US,” Zahid said, adding that now they allowed foreigners to stay in the country without any valid documents.

He said the US troops’ arrival without explanation was just the latest indication of how elected lawmakers are kept in the dark on key matters related to Pakistan’s national security.