The US, Russia, China and Iran have at one time or another been opponents of the Afghan Taliban. And yet today, the blindingly obvious truth acknowledged by all of the aforementioned nations is that peace in Afghanistan is impossible without the Taliban being a central element of a peace process. For Pakistan, a long misunderstood policy regarding the Afghan Taliban has finally been vindicated by an overwhelming quorum of the international community. But how did we get here?
The US abandons Afghanistan after the Peshwar Accord
In the 1980s, the United States backed the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet invasion in aid of its puppet government in Kabul. But while many in Afghanistan and in the wider Ummah were led to believe that the United States had pure intentions in Afghanistan, by the time of the Soviet withdrawal, it became clear that for the US, Afghanistan was part of a wider “great game” and little more.
In 1992, the Peshwar Accord was supposed to unite Afghanistan around a new government comprised of the victorious Mujahideen forces. And yet, the world’s post-Cold War hegemon, the United States did virtually nothing to prevent the victorious Mujahideen forces from making war on one another once their common enemy had disappeared.
The Taliban – from Kandahar to Kabul
After 1994, a new force originating in Kandahar emerged which ultimately filled the power vacuum caused by Afghanistan’s post 1992 civil war. The Taliban rose to prominence quickly and tended to outmanoeuvre older rival groups. In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul and proclaimed The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Although the new Taliban government consolidated power with rapidity, the United States like the majority of the world, refused to recognise it and instead continued to recognise the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the 1992 government which after 1996 controlled a small slice of territory in the country’s north. Because of this, the 1992 government once it had been chased from Kabul was more commonly referred to as “the northern alliance”.
By the late 1990s, the nation most expected to make war upon the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1998, the Taliban stormed the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed ten diplomats as well as one journalist. The pro-Northern Alliance Iranian government was prepared to invade Afghanistan although ultimately, the United Nations temporarily defused the situation.
Osama bin Laden seals the Taliban’s fate
At the beginning of 1996, former US allied Mujahideen fighter Osama bin Laden was living a good life in Sudan. Khartoum allowed bin Laden’s nascent al-Qaeda terror group to operate on its soil in exchange for substantial investments from the wealthy bin Laden.
However, 1996 proved to be a fateful year for Sudan, bin Laden and of course for the Taliban. Under pressure from the international community and from the US in particular, Sudan expelled bin Laden and in the process, millions of dollars worth of bin Laden’s assets were seized.
An increasingly disgruntled bin Laden returned to Afghanistan where his al-Qaeda fighters pledged to help secure the Taliban’s power whilst bin Laden’s remaining wealth and ability to accrue money in extreme circumstances was seen as attractive to a Taliban that were largely cut off from the international trading and finance system.
Bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan helped to mobilise the most radical elements of the Taliban against ethnic/religious minorities including and especially Shi’a Persianate Hazaras. For the Taliban, bin Laden’s presence was supposed to act as a security and financial insurance policy to a fledgling government but ultimately, bin Laden’s presence turned out to be a supreme detriment.
Bin Laden initially denied having anything to do with the 9/11 terrorist atrocity in the United States and it was in fact only in 2004 that he unambiguously claimed responsibility for 9/11. For the United States however, there was no doubt that bin Laden was the culprit behind the attacks and a US looking for revenge turned first to bin Laden’s Afghan place of residence.
At first, the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden to the US and instead offered to try him in a domestic Islamic court. As soon as this happened the Taliban’s days were numbered as the Taliban had rebuffed both the world’s most powerful nation and bin Laden simultaneously.
Eight days after the start of the US bombing campaign against Afghanistan, the Taliban agreed to hand bin Laden to a third party so long as he could have been tried in such a venue. The US refused the offer, even though if the Taliban handed bin Laden to Pakistan, it was widely agreed that Islamabad would not have hesitated to turn him over to the US. The rest is history and by late 2001, the Taliban were ousted from power by the United States and its partners.
Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan has long been misunderstood because it tends to be analysed exclusively from foreign perspectives rather than from Pakistan’s own easily ascertained perspective. From Pakistan’s creation up until the present day, no Afghan regime has acknowledged Pakistan’s otherwise internationally recognised border with Afghanistan – The Durand Line (this includes the 1996-2001 Taliban regime). Beyond this, just about every Afghan regime has promoted violent expansionism at the expense of Pakistan’s territorial unity as a major national policy.
After the 1978 Saur Revolution brought an expansionist Soviet puppet regime to power in Kabul, it became clear that Pakistan’s survival was at stake in a major way. This is why both Pakistan and its all weather ally China condemned Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. Not only were the majority of Afghans opposed to Soviet aggression but the war threatened to destabilise both China and Pakistan as a result.
After 1992, Pakistan again worried that an Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war could destabilise its western frontiers. It was because of this that Pakistan became an early backer of the Taliban after 1994. The Pakistani establishment had two things in mind when backing the Taliban. First of all, in 1994, the group had a comparatively clean record compared to other clashing groups of militants and as such, offered a realistic chance to unite the country and end armed conflict. Secondly, as the Taliban rallied around an Islamist ideology rather than a Greater Afghanistan/Greater Pashtunistan model, the Taliban seemed far less likely to provoke Pakistan than other factions. That being said even the Taliban refused to recognise the Durand Line.
In this sense, Pakistan’s support of the Taliban had everything to do with pragmatism and little to do with anything else. If people in the 21st century are upset about this fact, they should point the finger at both Moscow and Washington as both superpowers needlessly disturbed the region’s equilibrium before cutting and running, thus leaving Pakistan to do what it needed to do in order to protect its territorial integrity.
America becomes the USSR
Since 2001, the United States has propped up corrupt, ineffective and increasingly unpopular Afghan regimes whilst the chaos caused by the war unleashed a horrific wave of violence against Pakistan. In this sense, the US unleashed on Pakistan what even the USSR ultimately could not do in the 1980s. Furthermore, by allowing Afghanistan to become a safe haven for foreign backed (including and especially from India) anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, the post-2001 Kabul regimes have been deeply detrimental to a Pakistan that stood by the US after 2001, even as the US showed little concerns for Pakistan’s needs.
Because of the professionalism of Pakistan’s Army and ISI, the country managed to see off the worst of Afghan based terror groups. But Pakistan is still faced with a neighbour that does not recognise The Durand Line, which continues to harbour terrorists, which continues to conspire with India and which continues attempts to bully Pakistan in spite of controlling only 20-30% of all legally defined Afghan territory.
As such, after nearly 18 years, the United States is left propping up a Kabul regime that is as unpopular (if not more unpopular) with the majority of Afghan people as was the Soviet puppet regime of the 1980s.
While China, Russia and Iran never had relations with the Taliban in the 1990s, now all three countries support an active peace process which accepts the fact that as the most powerful political/military force in Afghanistan, the Taliban must be brought into an all-parties peace process that will see the Taliban participate in a new government. The United States has also largely adopted this position as American diplomats continue direct peace talks with the Taliban in spite of the consternation this causes to the Kabul regime – a regime that the US can scarcely defend with a straight face at this point in time.
And thus, Pakistan has been doubly vindicated. First of all, Pakistan has long held that a peace process which sees the Taliban as an enemy rather than an important party to the process will simply not work in any sense. Secondly, the reformed nature of a Taliban that now rejects sectarianism and hostility against minorities has come about because the international community is willing to meet the Taliban halfway. If the international community was willing to meet various Afghan factions half-way in the mid-1990s rather than simply turn their backs and let the chips fall where they did, the region would have developed along very different lines by the turn of the 21st century.
In this sense, while it is objective fact that the Taliban committed domestic atrocities and sheltered al-Qaeda during the 1990s, one must ask why this happened? The answer is that when a political entity is able to monopolise domestic force but not create prosperity due to being cut off from the international system of trade and finance, extremism will be such an entity’s last resort. By contrast, if in the 1990s, the international community worked to normalise the situation in Afghanistan, one may have seen a moderate Taliban emerge by the late 1990s because it would not have needed to rely on bin Laden and as such, could have been incentivised through trade to turn away from political extremism.
It is somewhat odd that Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis Afghanistan continues to be misunderstood and unfairly maligned. This is particularly ironic as now the US, Russia, China and Iran share Pakistan’s position and are all relying on Pakistan to help bring about a peace process that could have and should have happened decades ago.