Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war. Photo: AFP

PESHAWAR – With the Taliban now firmly in power in Kabul, attention is shifting to Pakistan’s supporting role in the militant group’s lightning-fast success on the battlefield.

While the Taliban has so far taken a moderate stance, allowing US citizens to flee Kabul unhindered under a “blanket amnesty” and vows to honor women’s “rights” under Islamic law, Islamabad will share in the blame if and when the rebel group’s takeover starts to go wrong.   

Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Service Military Intelligence (ISI) has been widely accused by many observers and analysts as playing a decisive role in the Taliban’s blitzkrieg strategy to encircle and besiege Kabul and knock President Ashraf Ghani’s government from power.

It’s an open secret that the Afghan Taliban were allowed to use Pakistani territory to treat their wounded fighters, recruit insurgents from religious seminaries, raise funds for their self-described “holy war”, and even educate their children in Pakistan’s elite schools.

Before his overthrow, Ghani claimed at a conference in July in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that “10,000 jihadis” had traveled from Pakistan to join the Taliban’s offensive against his national forces, a claim Pakistan robustly denied at the time.

However, no official denials came amid widespread media reports that the Taliban’s leadership was allowed to move around freely in Pakistan while they were waging war against Ghani’s US-backed government.

Pakistan was fundamentally opposed to Ghani’s brand of ethnonationalism, which many in Islamabad saw as a potential threat to its minority Pashtun regions. Ghani was a traditional Pashtun chief before becoming national leader.  

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of sending fighters to support the Taliban. Photo: AFP

In late June, Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed openly declared that the family members of several Afghan Taliban militants lived safely in Pakistani cities, including in Islamabad’s leafiest districts.

Nor did Islamabad gainsay local media reports quoting Pakistani officials who confirmed that the bodies of Taliban militants killed in Afghanistan were allowed to be sent to Pakistan and that injured fighters had received medical treatment in top Pakistani hospitals.

With Pakistan’s support for the Taliban now in the open, Islamabad is under diplomatic pressure to keep a rein on the militant group and use its leverage to coax it into seeking a political settlement rather than meting out bloody retribution against Ghani government supporters.

That pressure is coming from high places. The UN Security Council (UNSC), which last week called a special session on the situation in Afghanistan, notably declined Pakistan’s request to be a part of the deliberations.

As rival India holds the UNSC’s presidency in August, Pakistan has warned the world body not to allow India to “project a distorted picture” on the Afghanistan situation. The body will meet in the coming days to deliberate the UN’s position on the Taliban’s war win.  

At the same time, some US lawmakers have suggested to President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on Pakistan unless it “changes course” for “covertly assisting the Afghan Taliban.”

Certain US congressmen have stated their belief that ISI strategists dictated orders to the Taliban, which helped guide the militant outfit to its quick and decisive victory through a geographical strangulation tactic that quickly hemmed in Ghani’s government in Kabul. 

Not all experts and analysts believe Pakistan is in Afghanistan’s driver’s seat, however.

Taliban fighters in a file photo. Credit: Handout

“Pakistan has a small fraction of strategic control over an Afghan Taliban that is now a far more capable and experienced fighting force,” said Ryan Clarke, a senior fellow at the East Asian Institute of Singapore who has written extensively on South Asian terror and extremist networks. “The Pakistani civilian, military, and intelligence leadership that are attempting to drive these Taliban operations in Afghanistan are playing with TNT inside a nuclear reactor.

“The Afghan Taliban will no longer take orders from Pakistanis and may even come to view them as a liability. In the interests of self-preservation, it would be wise for Pakistan’s leadership to take note of this reality,” Clarke said in a WhatsApp message to Asia Times.

“The Pakistani leadership has continued to operate under the false assumption that the influence and reach of the Afghan Taliban will never spread into ‘settled Pakistan’, namely the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. [But] this is done.”

As the Taliban’s anti-government offensive intensified and more Afghan provinces fell to the militant group, Afghan netizens – many now likely in hiding or on the run, launched a hashtag #SanctionPakistan in protest against Islamabad’s role in the conflict.

The hashtag, which is still trending on Twitter, was launched last week just days before the fall of Kabul and after a prominent news reporter formerly with the Wall Street Journal accused the Pakistan military of “waging war” against Afghanistan.

That’s sparked wider calls on the UNSC to sanction Pakistan for supporting “terrorism” and causing a now unfolding human catastrophe in Afghanistan that is likely to result in a mass exodus of refugees.

Prominent Western voices are giving the sanctions call high-profile resonance. Chris Alexander, a former Canadian minister and diplomat, took a dig at Prime Minister Khan in a tweet, “Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine: the world sanctioned them. Pakistan is invading Afghanistan: what are we waiting for? #SanctionPakistan.”

On August 2, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) rebuked Alexander for his online remarks on Pakistan’s military leadership, saying his comments showed a lack of understanding about the Afghan peace process and facts on the ground.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan denies Pakistan had anything to do with the fall of Kabul. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

In a tweet, the FO said, “We strongly condemn the unwarranted comments by former Canadian minister Chris Alexander, making unfounded & misleading assertions about…Pakistan’s role in #AfghanPeaceProcess. Such remarks betray a complete lack of understanding of the issue as well as ignorance of facts on the ground.”    

But Pakistan authorities have reason to be sensitive. Talkwalker, a social media insight company, claims that the hashtag #SanctionPakistan was as of this week used over 730,000 times and that 37% of those tweets were tagged as originating in Afghanistan.

The Twitter campaign reportedly caused the military top brass to convene a closed-door meeting with pro-establishment journalists and other government functionaries to push a countervailing narrative that Pakistan was not directly involved in the Afghan war.

That could explain Khan’s unusually blunt accusation that the US was pressing Pakistan to clean up the “mess” its war left behind in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.  He said the Taliban leadership were adamant that they would not consider a political settlement unless Ghani resigned and thus Islamabad’s hands were tied.

In a letter to President Joe Biden, Republican congressional representative Michael Waltz proposed that the US could stop the Taliban offensive and support Afghan national forces through the use of airpower. Waltz said in the letter that Biden should send a very clear message to the Taliban’s backers in Pakistan that enough was enough.

“The Pakistani military is integral in the Taliban’s resurgence. At best, the Pakistanis are turning their backs and complicit in what is happening.  At worst, they are actively aiding and equipping the Taliban. The US must suspend all aid and consider sanctions on key military and intelligence officials,” Waltz wrote to the US leader.

Afrasiab Khattak, a politician, intellectual, and Pashtun rights activist claimed in a BBC interview that Pakistan fully supports the Taliban. “Taliban is in a way an instrument of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. Pakistan is very happy with the Taliban advances; Pakistani generals, I mean – the civilian government has no role in shaping policy.”

Pakistani army special forces practice in fighting against terrorists. Photo: Vitaly Timkiv / Sputnik via AFP

In regard to the February 2020 Doha deal that saw the US agree to withdraw its troops in exchange for the Taliban cutting ties with terror groups like al-Qaeda and a cessation of hostilities, Khattak said the deal lacked peace and reconciliation measures.

“It was made for the withdrawal of the American forces. It did not talk about the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan,” he said.

Indeed, some analysts already foresee the next phase of Afghanistan’s conflict likely destabilizing Pakistan itself. “Pakistan is presently suffering from the delusion that they will ultimately control this process in Afghanistan. If you light your neighbor’s cluster house on fire, yours will catch on fire too,” said Clarke.

“It isn’t the 1990s again – the Taliban are the world’s largest heroin-based drug lords. They earn billions and have a highly diversified global financial infrastructure and its associated ability to source weapons systems and other related materials from multiple sources in the event that Pakistani supply chains become unstable or uncertain for any reason.”

Shawn W. Crispin provided reporting from Bangkok.