In reach of complete victory, the Taliban see no reason to listen to the Generals’ calls to end the fighting

Eight days after 9/11, as United States combat jets began bombing Taliban positions across Afghanistan, General Pervez Musharraf went on air to warn his nation it stood at a fateful crossroad. In and outside the Pakistan Army, powerful voices were urging the country to defy America, and fight alongside the Taliban to defend its Islamic Emirate. “Our critical assets,” Pakistan’s military ruler responded, “are our sovereignty, second our economy, third our strategic assets, and fourth our Kashmir cause. All four will be harmed if we make the wrong decision,” he warned.

“Bravery without thinking is stupidity.”

In a closed-door briefing to Pakistan’s political leadership this week, Army chief General Qamar Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director-general Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed made much the same speech again. Islamabad’s influence with the Taliban had waned as its victory neared. The Army’s calls for the Taliban to end fighting and share power in Afghanistan, the Generals explained, weren’t being heeded. The Taliban remained enmeshed with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, as well as al-Qaeda.

For twenty years, the ISI nursed the Taliban in the darkness, plotting its triumph. As the last American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, and the Taliban reach for military victory, their dream is being revealed to be a nightmare.

Islamabad has long claimed that it held the keys to peace in Afghanistan. “There is a potential deal to be made”, Pakistan’s now-National Security Adviser (NSA), Moeed Yusuf, asserted in a 2017 article. “The United States would agree to make a peace process with the Taliban the centrepiece of its Afghanistan strategy and to set up a mechanism through the Afghan government that gives Pakistan a seat at the negotiating table.” In return, Yusuf said, Pakistan would “nudge them to accept a deal within the confines of the Afghan constitution”. Following this, Yusuf said, the problem “would now be narrowed down to targeting irreconcilable Taliban”. Islamabad would take the recalcitrant Taliban on, and the “United States in turn target Pakistani Taliban safe havens on the Afghan side of the border”.

The United States delivered on its end of the bargain, Yusuf laid out. Last year, it signed a peace deal with the Taliban, committing to “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” and political negotiations. Instead, violence has escalated, with the Taliban seizing ever-greater swathes of territory, and threatening cities like Kunduz and Herat. In reach of complete victory, the Taliban see no reason to listen to the Generals’ calls to end the fighting. Ever since 2003, multiple efforts had been made by Western intelligence to win over the so-called ‘moderate’ Taliban. In 2005, German diplomats held negotiations with former Taliban representatives in Bonn. The dialogue went nowhere, but efforts continued. In 2006, British troops under the command of Lieutenant-General David Richards negotiated a mutual withdrawal from the town of Musa Qala—only to find the Taliban occupied it inside weeks.

Twenty years after General Musharraf chose to back the West’s 9/11 war, the dilemma he outlined remains unresolved.

In spite of this bitter experience, a succession of envoys for United States presidents—from Richard Holbrook to Zalmay Khalilzad—gambled the ISI would be able to deliver the Taliban. America knew the ISI was providing the Taliban with safe havens and resources. Islamabad was, moreover, unwilling to allow negotiations which excluded it. In 2010, it detained top Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, suspected of negotiating with the United States, and only released him eight years later.

Yet, the potential payoff from a deal seemed high. “We need Pakistan’s army and ISI to dismantle al-Qaeda,” former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief George Tenet reasoned, “and Pakistan’s stability and interests are at least as important to the United States as Afghanistan’s recovery from Taliban rule.” From the outset, there were sceptics. Gary Schroen, the CIA’s key expert on Afghanistan, argued the “push to allow the Pakistanis back into the Afghan game was disturbing and a real mistake”. “They had their own specific agenda for the country and it did not track with anything the United States government would want to see emerge there in the post-Taliban period.”

Even though the Generals won the argument, delivering on their promise to rein-in the Taliban is turning out to be tougher than planned. Failure to deliver could mean harsh consequences. The multinational Financial Action Task Force has chosen to lift the threat of sanctions for Pakistan’s failure to act against terror financing. Islamabad’s negotiations for desperately-needed aid from the International Monetary Fund, too, remain deadlocked. Force—or coercion targeted at the Pakistan-based leadership of the Taliban—is one way for the Generals to impose terms on their Afghan clients. The Taliban, though, also have a sword hanging over the Pakistan Army. The Generals have learned, the hard way, to fear that sword.

General Musharraf’s turning on the Army’s jihadist clients after 9/11 came at a cost. From 2004, as the CIA began drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan, terrorism inside the country escalated. The Army sought to make deals with the TTP, ceding them territory in return for their support against jihadists attacking Pakistan. In April 2004, Tehrik-e-Taliban commander Nek Muhammad Wazir stood next to XI corps commander Lieutenant-General Syed Safdar Husain, promising that, in a war with India, he would be “Pakistan’s atomic bomb”.

The peace deals made by the ISI, though, didn’t stick. From 2007 on, General Musharraf’s successor as Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, argued the CIA’s drone war had driven the Afghan Taliban, the TTP, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda into closer cooperation. Led by Baitullah Mehsud, and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP came to pose an ever-growing threat to the Pakistani state itself.

Even though General Kayani tried to heal the relationship between the ISI and the jihadists, the Army was eventually forced into grinding counter-insurgency campaigns, culminating with Zarb-e-Azb in 2014. The insurgents retreated into Afghanistan, where some went on to found the Islamic State’s local unit. Large-scale destruction of civilians during the operation, though, left a legacy of ill-will across Pakistan’s north-west.

From 2016, the ISI sought to rebuild its relationship with the erstwhile TTP. The network of the Haqqani Network commander Sirajuddin Haqqani played a key role in these efforts, providing resources and training to the alienated jihadists. Led by the ethnic Kashmiri jihad commander Aijaz Ahanger, one of the cells set up by the ISI even recruited multiple Indian nationals from Kerala who were used for suicide-attacks in Kabul. In 2020, the ISI is believed to have organised the quiet return of these prodigal jihadists to Pakistan’s north-west, offering them sanctuary in return for keeping the peace. Inside months, though, the TTP began asserting power in the territories it had returned to, by carrying out targeted killings of local notables, extorting money from businesspeople, kidnapping government officials, and even attacking security forces.

Taliban pragmatists understand the benefits of a power sharing deal, but far more see reason to escalate violence.

Led by Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP has proved adroit in reuniting the factions which operated under its umbrella, like the Jamat-ul-Ahrar and Hizb-ul-Ahrar. The safe havens ceded by the ISI have become magnets, moreover, for a welter of small jihadist groups from Punjab. Taliban units led by Gilgit-Baltistan region deputy leader Habib-ur-Rehman have openly amassed along the strategically-important China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway, raising concerns about the safety of infrastructure projects funded by Beijing. In recent statements, the TTP has been sharply critical of Chinese policies on Xinjiang; Beijing had earlier pressured the ISI to act against the group, saying it was sponsoring terrorists targeting the province.

General Bajwa’s speech in the National Assembly was, at its core, an admission of strategic defeat. The Generals bet on the Taliban, believing it would give them so-called strategic depth: allowing Pakistan leverage over the jihadist movement, control of Afghanistan, and influence in the wider neighbourhood. Instead, it’s turning out, the Taliban have adroitly gained strategic depth in Pakistan. Taliban leaders have demonstrated that they—not the Pakistani state—are the real locus of power. Twenty years after General Musharraf chose to back the West’s 9/11 war, the dilemma he outlined remains unresolved. Failing to act against the Taliban could imperil Pakistan’s true strategic interests, inviting Western pressure and even sanctions. Acting against them, though, will invite blowback at home. Islamabad will, moreover, suffer the impact of large-scale refugee flows and the inevitable impact of living next door to a criminalised state fed by narcotics production.

Last-ditch efforts by the ISI and the West to avert these outcomes will continue—but the odds are stacked against them. Taliban pragmatists understand the benefits of a power-sharing deal, but far more see reason to escalate violence, which will enable them to consolidate their authority in the areas of Afghanistan they currently control.

As Islamabad considers its next step through the increasingly perilous Afghan minefield, it’s being forced to contemplate the bitter cost of getting what it wished for.