After an interlude of two decades, Pakistan has conquered Afghanistan, again.
Or so you would think, looking at the reactions of Pakistani leaders over the past three weeks. From leaking intelligence meetings to celebrating Western leaders’ calls, Islamabad is relishing, loudly, the attention it is getting.
Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, head of a military that has been taking orders from the U.S. for 20 years, is now lecturing Washington on the failures of its geopolitical strategies, while peddling a Taliban that, he asserts, would champion human rights. This, only a month after Bajwa expressed concerns about cracking down on the Pakistan Taliban for fear of violent "blowback" within Pakistan itself, acknowledging that the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban are "two faces of the same coin."
For Pakistan’s real rulers, the military, the time has come to cash in on that coin.
Pakistan’s triumphant tub-thumping began last year, after Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban in Doha. The U.S., by legitimizing the Taliban as a critical stakeholder, signified a victory for Pakistan’s decades-old plan to establish an Islamist regime in Kabul.
That plan even predates the U.S.’s utilization of the jihadists to drive out the Soviets. Pakistan formulated the policy of cultivating an extra-territorial mujahideen force under its writ soon after the state’s inception, to counter Indian influence and ‘liberate Kashmir.’
- The Taliban's return to power is reshaping the Middle East in unexpected ways
- The Taliban will decide if Pakistan recognizes Israel
- From Texas to the Taliban, the dark politics of fundamentalism is rising
- Israel must take in Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban
To those ends, it sought ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and first sent jihadists to target the Daoud Khan regime in the early 1970s. Pakistan has also been anxious about an Indo-Afghan ploy to incite separatism among the Pashtun-majority areas on Islamabad’s side of the Durand Line that no regime in Kabul has ever officially recognized as a border.
In addition to being the foundation of the Pakistan’s regional policies, the jihadists also help the military suppress civilian leaders to maintain its position as the omnipotent hegemon at home. Therefore, a lot was at stake when, in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. threatened that if Islamabad didn’t uproot its jihadist superstructure, it would bomb "Pakistan back to the Stone Age" — even if George W. Bush didn’t in fact use those exact words.
But Pakistan barely even paid lip service to its pretense to clamp down on jihadists, including those responsible for 9/11, gambling, correctly, that an overextended U.S. wouldn’t make good on its lurid threat.
In addition to establishing this inherently duplicitous counterterror game with/against the U.S., the then military ruler Pervez Musharraf built a similarly paradoxical ideological narrative at home, selling "enlightened moderation" to the West, while radically Islamizing Pakistan.
Little wonder, then, that Taliban’s takeover has also been met with jubilation by Pakistanis across ideological and political divides.
'Moderates' use half-baked sarcasm ("Pakistani women should wear hijab to make us as powerful as the Taliban!") to test the waters on where their mass audience stands on the Afghan Islamists. Cricketers, senior female judges and even some women’s schools and organizations vocally back the Taliban. Their victory is our victory, say the educated women, journalists and cultural figures who would be forced into silence across the border.
As is evident, during the decades of turmoil it fostered in Afghanistan to facilitate the Taliban’s rise to power, Pakistan has successfully completed its own Talibanization.
Indeed, last year, just as it became clear that a second Taliban reign was imminent in Afghanistan, Imran Khan began paying tribute to Osama bin Laden, whom he called a "martyr," (while his own foreign minister refused to call bin Laden a terrorist) talking up Islamic modesty codes as solution to growing sexual violence against women, and even rallying for the country’s murderous blasphemy laws to be exported to the West.
But the establishment doesn’t appear to be entertaining the possibility that this grand strategy could backfire: instead of propping up Afghan puppets in a satellite state, Pakistan may just have empowered a jihadist regime to expand over the border into its own de facto territory.
Instead, Pakistan’s rulers see only victory: The victory of their Islamist narrative, of their patronage over the Taliban, which they still hope means control, and the boost to their Muslim world leadership pedigree.
Pakistan hopes to win credit with both Iran and Saudi Arabia by selling the story of its influence over Taliban and as kingmaker in Afghanistan, compensating for the dent in Islamabad’s budding bromance with Turkey, caused by Pakistan pushing its way much of the Afghan refugee flow, aided by the extremely timely erection of a fence on the Afghan border last month.
Pakistan knows it can play both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide because, as the Taliban’s rise indicates, the Muslim world is no longer bipolar: those spheres of influence are permeable and elastic, with Iranian and Saudi officials now meeting regularly, and power struggles within the Gulf and beyond. Fighting intra-Muslim sectarian proxy wars won’t be as lucrative as it used to be for Riyadh and Tehran.
Pakistan’s army, a longstanding beneficiary of big powers’ proxy jihad in the Middle East, now needs something new to attract Saudi funds. And just like good old days of anti-Soviet jihad, Pakistan is all set to vend the same product to both Saudi and the U.S. albeit under different packaging: Leverage with the Taliban – or else.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi chose to urge Western leaders to stay invested in Afghanistan by, in effect, warning them that instability could lead to another 9/11, while accusing India of supporting jihadist groups.
Pakistan’s narrative – that the West needs it to access and influence the Taliban – comes with spikes for extra persuasive power. Islamabad is concurrently blackmailing Western powers into accepting Pakistan’s primacy in Afghanistan, or at least that of its omnipotent army, by alluding to its status as a potentially turbulent nuclear-armed state.
Pakistani military leaders since Pervez Musharraf have repeatedly asserted that its nuclear bomb might fall into jihadist hands should whatever it is demanding isn’t done.
Few Western leaders appear to have paused to contemplate if they’re now giving a helping hand to a Pakistani military which has refused to cede even the minutest bit of authority to civilian leaders over seven decades, ensconced in an alliance with an Islamist militia, highlighted again by this weekend’s visit by the head of Pakistani intelligence to Kabul.
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been within jihadist proximity for decades, but now, that access could be even closer, compounded by Gen Bajwa’s own admission that jihadist elements (including those heavily sympathetic to the Taliban) are present within the Pakistan army itself.
Pakistan is eagerly publicizing the attention it's won since the Taliban takeover, and not only to attract U.S. President Joe Biden’s attention. It is simultaneously intended as a message for Gulf rulers, whose plans for the Middle East, and especially formalization of ties with Israel, might be derailed by events in Kabul not least if Pakistan takes over the antisemitic conspiracy hysteria mainstreamed in the past by the Arab states now queuing up to recognize the Jewish state.
Islamabad’s advertising of its own significance might even be a soft whisper towards China, which has increasingly asserted economic control over Pakistan, but was recently given a painful reminder of the jihadist threat from within Pakistan looming over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the spine of Beijing’s much touted Belt and Road Initiative.
While the U.S. withdrawal left China to deal with a jihadist regime, armed with arsenal worth millions, Pakistan will struggle to bleed Beijing the way it did Washington.
Thanks to territorial contiguity, and an autocratic, neoliberal diplomacy that puts modern-day Western imperialism in the shade, China can micromanage its interests in Pakistan, leaving little margin for double play.
Just have a look at Pakistan’s ‘counter-terrorism’ record: While allied to the U.S., it shielded Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, but is now eagerly hunting down second-generation Uyghur shopkeepers who found sanctuary in Afghanistan, on China’s orders.
Pakistan might have hoped that the Taliban takeover, and the bidding war for influence it aspires to foment, would give it some breathing space to negotiate better terms on the China front. But for all Pakistan’s noisy attempt to claim ownership over access to the Taliban and Afghanistan, it can’t compete with Beijing’s economic attractions, on which the survival of the new Kabul regime depends.
Having this week declared China its "principal partner," if the Taliban can prove itself to be a more reliable guarantor of stability along the Af-Pak border, then the now-preening Pakistani army will, at best, now quickly sell the West one more delivery of empty reassurances for one last hefty payday, before China takes over.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune