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How Pakistan Won in Afghanistan

The collapse of the Afghan republic was no accident. It was the culmination of many collective failures, but at the heart of the tragedy was the role played by one country: Pakistan.

Pakistan has long followed a dual-track approach in Afghanistan, hosting the Taliban on its soil while ostensibly working as a U.S. counterterrorism partner. When the Doha peace talks began in 2019, Islamabad vowed to facilitate a political deal between the Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans, yet its actual role was ambiguous. In Afghanistan, Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, shrewdly expanded the scale and scope of its covert campaign in support of the Taliban.

Afghan President

Ashraf Ghani

was convinced that the road to peace ran through Pakistan—specifically through Islamabad (the political capital), Quetta (the Taliban haven) and Rawalpindi (the military and intelligence center). Afghan leaders proceeded from the assumption that Pakistan would choose an imperfect settlement with the Taliban over state collapse. This assumption was initially borne out, but when Washington announced a complete troop withdrawal in April, Islamabad changed its tune. Pakistani leaders shifted from facilitating a broader political settlement to supporting a Taliban military victory. The consensus within Pakistani ranks was shaped by the debilitating political crisis of confidence in Kabul, the crippling leadership vacuum within Afghan forces, and the pressure from the Taliban hard-liners that a military solution was possible.

Afghan and Pakistani leadership held serious discussions in the months before Afghanistan’s collapse. As Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, I was privy to these talks. Two sets of specific requests were presented to the Afghan government by Pakistan’s army chief,

Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa,

and the intelligence chief,

Gen. Faiz Hameed.

The first set of requests concerned the Taliban. During a visit to Kabul in May, the Pakistani generals proposed offering the Taliban every Pashtun-dominated seat in Mr. Ghani’s government. He preferred to hold early elections and snubbed the suggestion, as it would have required handing over control of the presidency, foreign and security ministries, provincial governorships, embassies and the offices of provincial security chiefs. Pakistan had first pitched this idea to some non-Pashtun Afghan leaders. The Pakistani generals also urged Mr. Ghani to release Taliban prisoners, cease special operations and airstrikes, give the Taliban a share in customs revenues, allow them to keep their weapons, and avoid publicly questioning the group’s religious legitimacy. The Pakistanis knew that Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan made them look bad, so they asked the Afghans to limit media reports about the havens.

The second set of Pakistani requests concerned bilateral issues such as India’s presence in Afghanistan. Gen. Bajwa wanted to place a Pakistani intelligence liaison team inside Afghanistan to monitor Indian activities. Mr. Ghani requested a reciprocal arrangement—an Afghan team inside Pakistan to watch over the Taliban—with the U.K. acting as a third-party verifier. Gen. Bajwa rejected this idea.

This summer, Pakistan completed construction of a fence along the Durand Line, the 19th-century partition running through the Pashtun heartland. Islamabad wanted a joint security commission to oversee the area. Gen. Bajwa asked the Afghans to secure their side and pay half of the fencing costs. Any bargain presented a risk of de facto recognition of the Durand Line as a border, which Afghanistan rejects. This time it was Mr. Ghani’s turn to say no.

Another sensitive issue involved the presence of the Pakistani Taliban—the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—and Baloch nationalists in Afghanistan. The Pakistani generals solicited detailed information about support networks for the groups within the Afghan government. The Afghans asked to see Pakistani intelligence findings, but the generals refused. Gen. Bajwa also sought unhindered land access to Central Asia via Afghanistan for purposes of trade. Mr. Ghani, in return, asked for the right to conduct two-way trade with India via the Wagah-Attari border crossing. Gen. Bajwa scotched this request despite Pakistani Prime Minister

Imran Khan’s

2019 agreement to allow it.

In the end, no progress was made on these issues. By June, as the Taliban military offensive gained steam, none of it mattered. Pakistani intelligence expanded its tactical presence in the Taliban units, especially the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, and a deluge of militant fighters entered Afghanistan. Afghan intelligence indicated that the ISI had galvanized its elaborate network of human informants in major cities, involving local travel agencies, commercial banks, restaurants, hotels, bakeries and taxi drivers. Haqqani Network units were also conducting extensive mapping of government installations and individuals. Elements inside Afghan institutions cultivated by the ISI delivered sensitive information about Afghan officials to Haqqani units. Publicly, this sprawling campaign was overshadowed by Pakistan’s spirited diplomacy. Pakistani officials made boilerplate statements, proclaiming that there could be no military solution to the Afghan problem.

Despite intelligence warnings that the U.S. withdrawal would be calamitous, Afghan leaders failed to make swift adjustments to their approach. Senior officials, who broadly perceived the American withdrawal as a bluff, were either in denial or blinded by subterranean rivalries. In July, as most U.S. operations ended, Kabul had become a political sand castle. The view within the Afghan palace was that Pakistan wanted Mr. Ghani’s head on a stick. In the end, Pakistan succeeded in enabling the Taliban takeover—a victory that Mr. Khan described as “breaking the chains of slavery.”

Pakistan has managed to turn Afghanistan into a puppet. Going forward, Islamabad expects to play the dominant role in managing the Taliban government. But Washington can’t afford to be distracted or politically absent. The U.S. should reassess its fundamental relationship with Pakistan and investigate Islamabad’s role in the Taliban takeover. Meanwhile, Washington should deploy an intelligence-led team to engage the Taliban directly on counterterrorism and avoid the temptation of enlisting Pakistan as a counterterrorism partner.

Mr. Ahmad is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, 2020-21.

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