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Pakistan's intelligence service may end up the real winner in the Afghan peace deal, at least for now

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after signing the peace agreement on Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On the surface, one winner in the peace deal the United States signed with the Taliban on Saturday is Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, which has been a longtime supporter of the Islamist group that may now be in a position to regain at least a share of power in the Afghan government. But the deal also poses long-term risks to Pakistan, whose intelligence service has spent years empowering militants that may no longer be under its control, according to analysts and former military officials. 

From its formation in 1994 through its 1996 seizure of power in Kabul, the Taliban’s battlefield successes owed much to the help of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI. The peace agreement, a clear victory for the Taliban, is in some ways a culmination of the ISI’s longtime support for the militant group.

“The Pakistani military intelligence, I’m sure they’re relieved, because they wanted this kind of an outcome,” said Hassan Abbas, a professor at National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C., and a former Pakistani official. If the Taliban enter into some form of power-sharing agreement with the current Kabul government, that would mean “Pakistan will be able to push back on Indian interests in Afghanistan,” added Abbas, who authored the 2014 book “The Taliban Revival.” For Pakistan, he said, the Taliban represent “a tool to confront India.”

The agreement commits the United States to almost immediately begin reducing its military force in Afghanistan from about 12,000 troops to 8,600 by July 13, and then to completely withdraw from the country within 14 months, subject to the Taliban fulfilling its part of the deal by refraining from attacking U.S. and allied forces and by preventing others from doing so.

The deal also requires the Taliban to begin negotiations with the Afghan government on March 10. Those talks might result in a power-sharing deal that gives the Taliban, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, a significant role in a coalition government in Kabul. But if the Taliban and the government of Ashraf Ghani fail to reach an agreement, which seems increasingly likely, the U.S. military withdrawal will only serve to enhance the Taliban’s battlefield position.

Either option would likely be acceptable to Pakistan, which has traditionally sought a compliant, Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul. However, a stronger Taliban will likely embolden other regional militant groups that are not under Pakistan’s control.

Islamabad’s support for the Taliban, as well as for jihadi groups targeted at India, has already led to the emergence of other rogue Islamist militant groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban, sometimes known as the Pakistani Taliban, which have taken aim at the Pakistani state itself.

A screengrab from 2008 video footage shows Maulana Fazlullah, newly appointed chief of Tehrik-i-Taliban, speaking with local journalists in Pakistan's northwestern Swat valley. (AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan’s security services “have paid through the nose because they knew that [because of] the policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban, they had to allow these other Taliban types to function in Pakistan, and all of those have created havoc in Pakistan,” Abbas said. 

The ISI must now face the potential consequences of its decision to continue supporting the Taliban in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Although Pakistan has always denied it, most analysts accept that, following a brief pause after the United States (helped by the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance) drove the Taliban from power in late 2001, the ISI revived its relationship with the group it had nurtured since the mid-1990s. The rationale for the ISI’s actions remained the same: Pakistan has traditionally regarded Afghanistan as “strategic depth” in the case of a war with its fierce rival India, and for that reason wants a government in Kabul it can control.

Irrespective of whether the peace talks end with the Taliban gaining a role in government, or simply improving their military position by virtue of the U.S. withdrawal, Pakistan, and in particular the ISI, may therefore welcome the latest turn of events.

“Regardless of the outcome, I think this puts Pakistan — including the ISI — closer, either politically or militarily, to getting more influence in Kabul, which is what they wanted,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Retired Army Col. Tom Lynch of NDU’s Institute for National Strategic Studies said the U.S. military withdrawal without defeating the Taliban gives Pakistan an “I told you so” moment, because it has proved Pakistan’s argument to the United States, which Lynch summarized as “You can’t succeed in Afghanistan independent of us, because we manage, if not actually control, the militant framework in that country.”

But Lynch, who also agreed that Pakistan’s policy has led to attacks on its own government, described any victory the ISI might claim from the peace deal as “Pyrrhic.”

A return to power for the Afghan Taliban would reenergize the very Islamist groups that have created so much trouble in Pakistan, according to Abbas. “An empowered Afghan Taliban are automatically going to empower, inspire [and] motivate the Pakistani Taliban,” he said. “Any smart strategist in Pakistan at this moment should be quite worried.”

Pakistan finds itself in this situation because since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the ISI has walked an extraordinary diplomatic tightrope, supporting the Taliban as they were killing Americans in Afghanistan, while simultaneously helping the United States conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida in Pakistan and elsewhere. The Taliban were responsible for the vast majority of the almost 1,900 American troops killed in action in Afghanistan.

An American soldier is evacuated after being shot near the village of Zunchorah, close to the Pakistani border, in 2004. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“Pakistan, particularly ISI, has successfully run a not-so-covert covert action program for almost the last two decades to provide assistance and sanctuary to the Taliban,” said Jones. “It’s actually an amazing feat, to allow sanctuary and provide assistance to the same group that is killing American soldiers, and to keep diplomatic relations” with the United States.

The most important assistance the ISI provided the Taliban, according to Jones, was to allow their leaders to base themselves in Quetta, home of the Pakistani military’s command and staff college, while permitting the Haqqani Network, a particularly dangerous self-contained group allied to the Taliban, to base itself in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. “For anybody who’s studied the successes or failures of insurgencies, having an external sanctuary for your leaders directly next door to a border that [your enemy] can’t control … is a huge upside,” Jones said.

While military officials have no doubt that Pakistani intelligence supported the Taliban, there’s disagreement about the types of support the ISI did — and did not — give the Taliban. 

“There was obviously a tolerance of Taliban and Haqqani Network headquarters on Pakistani soil,” retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, told Yahoo News. However, he added, “it was difficult to precisely confirm what was provided in terms of funding or weapons.”

The catalyst for the ISI’s decision to continue its support of the Taliban appears to have been the Pakistani government’s realization around 2004 that the U.S. government was developing increasingly close ties to India, which had begun to invest in Afghanistan, according to Abbas. From that point, “Pakistani military intelligence revived or expanded their support for the Afghan Taliban,” he said.

This support took the form of small arms and ammunition, intelligence and money, according to analysts. But the ISI made sure to limit the lethality of the Taliban’s arsenal. “They manage very carefully the things that they do not want in the hands of the Afghan Taliban or anybody else out there,” said Lynch, a former military assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. In particular, the ISI worked hard to prevent the Taliban from getting shoulder-held antiaircraft and antitank weapons, he said. 

But unlike the support it provided to the Taliban during the 1990s, in the post-Sept. 11 era the ISI did not make a habit of sending military advisers into Afghanistan with the Taliban. “Absolutely not,” Lynch said. “They would not take that risk.” 

Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani Network, during an interview in Pakistan in 1998. (Mohammed Riaz/AP)

In general, the ISI adopted more of a hands-off approach to the Taliban’s war against the U.S. and coalition forces, according to Lynch. The Pakistanis gave the militants strategic guidance, using the ISI’s vast network of “cutouts” (mostly ISI alumni and contractors), “but ISI would not have been engaged or involved in planning Taliban military operations,” he said.

However, Lynch and Abbas agree that, in the case of the Haqqani Network, a militant group that is now part of the Taliban, the ISI exercised a much tighter degree of control, particularly when it came to attacks against Indian targets in Afghanistan. 

“Where I know personally the ISI would be intimately involved would be in specifying timing, targeting and effects desired against Indian targets,” Lynch said. “The Haqqanis have always been the favorite guided missile of the ISI.”

Despite the support that most senior U.S. officials realized, or strongly suspected, the ISI was giving to the Taliban, for almost 10 years those officials refrained from publicly castigating the Pakistani government, even as U.S. casualties in Afghanistan continued to mount. A major factor behind this reticence was the invaluable help the ISI was providing the United States in stopping terrorist plots by al-Qaida.

Indeed, the reason the U.S. government has tolerated the ISI’s support for the Taliban is that Pakistan was simultaneously assisting the United States with counterterrorism, according to Lynch. “The head of the ISI helped us capture and/or kill some of the most notorious terrorists and intercept some of the most diabolical plots that we have seen hatched by international terrorists in the last 20 years,” he said, pointing to the ISI’s role in foiling plots to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in 2003 and the Baltimore tunnels in 2005, and the capture of senior al-Qaida figure Younis al-Mauritani in 2011. 

“There have been at least, to my knowledge, six to eight documented major intercepts, disruptions and defeats of international terrorists that we owe to the … ISI, and that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Lynch said. “That’s why our intelligence community has been so adamant for so long that we not just throw away that relationship in frustration over the fact that there are these three degrees of separation [between the ISI and] how our forces have died in Afghanistan.”

Soldiers of Pakistan’s paramilitary force guard an area in Shakai, along the Afghan border, in 2004. (Amir Khan/AP)

As a result, the United States entered into what Lynch termed “a Faustian bargain” with the ISI, maintaining a relationship with it and refusing for many years to publicize its role as a supporter of the Taliban, in order to benefit from its help countering al-Qaida and similar international terrorist groups. Lynch likened this dilemma to the “dirty hands decision” an FBI agent must make when he’s running a mob informant who is providing valuable intelligence, even though the informant himself might be a murderer.

The United States made the right decision, Lynch said, adding that he lost three close friends killed by the Taliban. “It still sticks in my craw,” he said. “But I understand the strategic dynamic in what we were trying to do there. Because we weren’t going to go to war with a country of 180 million people with nuclear weapons.”

The Pakistanis also understood this, according to Lynch. “They’ve always had us by the short hairs,” he said. “Because they’re so intimately intertwined with those jihadi networks that they knew stuff that we needed to know.”

It would be a mistake to assume that the current crop of senior Taliban leaders are beholden to Pakistan, according to Abbas. As an example, he cited Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former deputy Taliban commander who languished for more than eight years in a Pakistani jail before being released at the United States’ request in 2018. He soon became the militants’ lead negotiator in Qatar, where the peace deal was signed. 

Leaders like Baradar “are skeptical about Pakistan,” despite the ISI’s long-standing support of the Taliban, Abbas said. “They will play their own cards very, very carefully.”

Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow in May 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

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