Pakistani soldiers (R) check stranded Afghan nationals at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 13, 2021, after the Taliban took control of the Afghan border town in a rapid offensive across the country. Photo: AFP

Pakistan has long played a critical, yet confusing role in Afghanistan. It has been one of the strongest US allies in its “war on terror”, yet it has also covertly backed the Taliban in its fight against US-led forces for years.

The paradox remained visible after the Taliban swept into Kabul last week.

Pakistan’s official response by its foreign minister was hope for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan through an inclusive, transition government following broad-based consultations with all ethnic groups and stakeholders.

Moreover, in a televised address, Pakistan’s army chief urged the Taliban leaders to fulfill their promise to the international community regarding respect for women’s rights and human rights

Both statements align with America’s aspirations. But in contrast, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that Afghans had broken “the shackles of slavery”, which seems to mock the US establishment.

Regional power response

Despite this mixed messaging from Pakistani leaders, a coordinated regional response to the Taliban takeover appears to be shaping up.

As western countries hold back from recognizing the new government, the regional powers of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have kept their embassies open in Kabul and expressed their willingness to work with the Taliban.

According to a senior security journalist I spoke with in Pakistan, both Russia and Iran supported the Taliban fight against the US-sponsored Afghanistan government to contain the threat from the Islamic State.

Iran’s influence on the Taliban can be gauged by the fact the group’s leadership participated in the Shia’ Majlis (a religious council delivering sermons) in Kabul after its takeover, which is highly unusual for the extremist Sunni Taliban.

Moreover, Iran and Russia have been so involved in Afghanistan and the politics of the Taliban that when then-President Donald Trump canceled a planned meeting with Taliban leaders in late 2019, the group reacted by going to both countries to get advice from their leaders on how to respond.

Overall, the strategies of these regional powers will greatly influence the politics in Afghanistan in the coming days — but it’s Pakistan that likely has the greatest sway over the Taliban leaders.

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban

Pakistan has provided political and military support for different factions within Afghanistan since the early 1970s. During the 1980s, Pakistan was a major backer of the Afghan mujahideen (holy warriors) fighting against the Soviet invasion and hosted millions Afghan refugees fleeing the war.

Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War in 1987. Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan was also a major ally of the US at this time. The US channeled some US$2-3 billion worth of covert assistance through Pakistan to the mujahideen, training over 80,000 of the fighters.

Even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Pakistani military officers continued to provide training and guidance to the mujahideen and eventually to Taliban forces to combat their enemies.

In addition, senior members of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and army are accused of helping the Taliban plan major military operations against the government during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.

Pakistani support for the group attracted widespread international criticism, including from then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called it “deeply distressing.”

Pakistan was then just one of three countries to officially recognize the new Taliban government when it took power in 1996.

General Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), acknowledged in 2014 that Pakistan even used US aid to continue funding the Taliban after the September 11 terror attacks.

He told a television audience,

When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.

Pakistan is still likely to provide covert political and logistic support to the new Taliban leaders in Afghanistan today.

In the past, the Taliban leadership had three consultative councils, known as shuras, based in Pakistan. At least one of these shuras, based in Quetta, still probably seems to be operating from Pakistan.

The Taliban also operated in the country throughout the American occupation in Afghanistan, even though the Pakistan government denies supporting the group and denies the existence of the Quetta shura.

Given this history, it’s no wonder many people around the world are blaming Pakistan for the Taliban’s recent military success, reflected in the #SanctionPakistan campaign on Twitter.

Muhammad Nadeem Malik is Senior Lecturer at The University of Melbourne

This story first appeared on The Conversation website and is republished with permission. To read the original, please click here.