Pakistan plays the villain again as the ISI chief visits Kabul amidst raging anti-Pakistan protests
The past decade had witnessed a regular stream of pained and exasperated comments from representatives of the Afghan and United States (US) governments that alleged Pakistan’s complicity in the deadly terrorist attacks that were being launched from Pakistani soil against Afghan and NATO targets in Afghanistan. Despite a general acceptance that Pakistan was up to no good, some subconsciously viewed these statements as being influenced to a degree by politics and statecraft. That tended to detract somewhat from the gravity of the debilitating impact that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and its sponsorship of the barbaric Haqqani network was having both on the Afghan people and on the prospects of success of the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. The protests this week by hundreds of exceptionally brave Afghans, predominantly women, who hit the Taliban-patrolled streets braving threats to their lives and blamed Pakistan for overwhelming their country with a radical ideology and a terrorist regime to enforce its oppressive dictates, certainly had a more undeniably real and personalized feel to it than did the government statements of the past. The visit of the gloating head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the terror-friendly agency that handles the Taliban and the Haqqanis, to Kabul to dictate the personnel who would make up the new Afghan cabinet would also have served to clear the cobwebs from the heads of those unconvinced by the official statements of facts.
EFSAS, just like other organizations whose understanding of the fast evolving developments in Afghanistan draws substantially from the reporting of brave members of the international media that still remain in that country under uncertain and volatile circumstances, got a feel of the palpable angst and trepidation of the women protesters that was on full display in BBC’s adroit coverage of the protests on 7 September. The protestors demanded a free Afghanistan and asked Pakistan to stop lording over the destruction of their country. They raised slogans such as ‘don’t want ISI government in Afghanistan’, ‘don’t want a dictatorial government’, ‘Pakistan get out of Afghanistan’ and ‘death to Pakistan’. In the BBC report, the correspondent asked a woman protester why she harbored such anger against Pakistan when the Taliban were Afghans. She retorted that while she agreed that the Taliban were Afghans, it was Pakistan that had inculcated the terrorist group with its radical ideology and sent it to create hell in Afghanistan. Another woman protester gave a wider perspective to the protests and was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “We are not defending our right for a job or a position we will work in, we are defending the blood of our youth, we are defending our country, our land”. An Afghan student described the Taliban eloquently when she termed it a “Group of ‘savage puppets (of Pakistan)’ trying to imprison women”.
As could have been expected, the Taliban reacted disproportionately violently against the peaceful protesters. The New York Times reported that “Demonstrators in the streets ‘were met with blows from rifle butts and hit with sticks’ before warning shots began”. The Washington Post quoted another woman as saying, “We were attacked by Taliban, they opened fire, some of the protesters were detained. Journalists were stopped from filming and covering the rally”. She added that a Taliban vehicle drove into the crowd of protesters, and that Taliban fighters began deleting photos and videos of the protests from the phones of those seized. There were also reports of journalists being harassed and beaten, and their cameras being taken away.
As the protests were playing out, the ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed was very much in Kabul, having arrived there last weekend. Visits by ISI heads to Afghanistan are not uncommon, but as per convention the travels, just like the travails, of intelligence chiefs worldwide are best carried out on the quiet and behind the scenes. For example, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), when asked recently about reports of the CIA chief having flown to Kabul to talk to the Taliban there, responded that the agency never commented on the chief’s itinerary. Hameed, on the other hand, was seen peacocking his feathers across Kabul, interacting with the media and giving strange statements, in what he seemed to view as a victory parade. The reason why it is best left to the mandarins and not to spooks to address the media soon became apparent. When asked by a journalist whether he would be meeting senior Taliban representatives during his visit, Hameed seemed to get caught between the reality of why he was in Afghanistan and what he ought to say or not say as an intelligence chief. His response was, therefore, pretty weird. He stuttered, “No, I’m not clear”, and then fixed his gaze pointedly at Mansour Ahmad Khan, the Pakistan Ambassador to Kabul who stood alongside, with the expectation that he would bail Hameed out.
Hameed certainly was not visiting messy Kabul for an early-autumn spa holiday or to identify new Bamiyan Buddhas for the Taliban to destroy. He was there to oversee the formation of the new Taliban-only cabinet and to ensure that the ISI’s assets, especially those with Haqqani as their surname, were given prime positions in it. Hameed was in Kabul to declare Pakistan’s overlordship over Taliban Afghanistan, he was there to remind the Taliban of who actually held the reins of power, and he was there to tell the world that Pakistan had once again wrestled itself into a position where it believed it could trade promises of favours and concessions in Afghanistan for loads of money from those that desired an Afghanistan that did not pose a threat to them.
No country in the entire history of human civilization has mastered how to misuse and exploit terrorism the way Pakistan has. Yet the country has never figured on the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. It has dodged that by repeatedly creating situations like in present-day Afghanistan and then exploiting such situations by projecting itself to needy interlocutors as the only country in a position to help rectify the situation. While gulping down copious amounts of money obtained through deceptive promises, Pakistan reveled in simultaneously funnelling a bit of it back into terrorism. It kept playing this same game again and again, ensuring that a vicious cycle remained alive. The test of whether the severely and repeatedly bitten US would now skirt shy of Pakistani enticement in acknowledgement of the venomous experiences that it had already endured lies ahead.
Hameed’s visit to Kabul and the composition of the cabinet that he negotiated with the terrorists put paid to all the slick Pakistani talk of wanting an inclusive, stable, and peaceful Afghanistan. Pakistan had gone so far as to say that it would not recognize a Taliban government that was not inclusive. Now, with the primary purposes of driving the US out of the region and getting the Taliban in the saddle having been fully achieved, the ISI chief has dictated a government bereft not only of any meaningful Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara representation, but also of any woman. While the rest of the world’s definition of inclusion meant other ethnic and religious groups and minorities, and importantly women, Pakistan seemed to mean the inclusion of all Pakistan-linked terrorist groups. The cabinet therefore comprised only terrorists. Some were on United Nations (UN) Sanctions lists, others had US bounties on their heads. The Home Minister was a leader of the ISI-supported Haqqani network, and his appointment would have come as a slap on the face for the US, many of whose troops and citizens had faced gruesome deaths at the hands of the Haqqanis. The Intelligence Minister, meanwhile, is the same person who in the same capacity in 2001 had operated in close liaison with the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan when 9/11 took place. As Morgan Ortagus, a former spokesperson of the US State Department was quoted as saying, “This isn’t an Afghan government, it’s a terrorist State”. Given its central role in stitching together such “a terrorist State”, it comes as no surprise that academic and author Colin P. Clarke in a recent article termed the ISI as a “rogue intelligence agency” that the Al Qaeda was beholden to.
The US government has taken note of what the ISI has hammered out in Kabul, but seems to have little leverage to change the situation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the names in the Taliban government did not inspire confidence. He outlined three core objectives for engagement on Afghanistan, including holding the Taliban to its commitment to allow the safe passage of foreigners and locals who seek to leave the country, its commitment to combat militant groups, and its responsibility to allow the flow of aid among the population. While each of these objectives is hugely important, just having three comes across as a huge comedown from the several that the Taliban had agreed to during the deliberations in Doha. The US also seems to be hoping, probably against hope, that the Taliban will reform itself in coming times. As Blinken put it, “The Taliban can earn that legitimacy gradually, over time, through a sustained pattern of action that demonstrates a genuine commitment to core expectations that are enshrined in the Security Council resolution adopted on August 30th, which include freedom of travel, not allowing Afghanistan to harbor terrorists, humanitarian access, respecting the basic rights of the Afghan people — particularly women and minorities — not carrying out reprisals, and forming an inclusive government that can meet the needs and reflect the aspirations of the Afghan people”. What the US proposes to do if the Taliban does not play ball was not clarified, but if the ease with which the US has been accepting violation after violation of the Doha Agreement by the Taliban is taken as a yardstick, it cannot be much. Blinken had said that Afghanistan would become a “pariah State” if the Taliban took control of the country by force. The Taliban has defiantly already done so, yet Blinken believes that the Taliban would do as he had advised just to earn “legitimacy gradually”.
A US State Department spokesperson earlier said on 7 September that “We note the announced list of names consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates, and no women. We also are concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals. We understand that the Taliban has presented this as a caretaker cabinet. However, we will judge the Taliban by its actions, not words”. It is surprising that what the US has already seen is not enough for it to have a clear idea of the direction in which the Taliban is taking the country.
The one single most important expectation that the US has of the Taliban is that it will prevent the conditions as prevailed in Afghanistan in 2001 from taking shape again. This is one promise the Taliban is likely to honour, even if only for its own credibility and interests. Even China, which with Pakistan’s strong support is looking to dominate and exploit Afghanistan well into the foreseeable future and to that end has been singing praises of the Taliban and offering it much-needed money, will frown upon Afghanistan again becoming a haven for terrorists. Its extraction of Afghanistan’s natural and other resources will be hampered in such unstable conditions. Unlike the US, China will succeed for now in getting the Taliban to act firmly against other terrorist groups simply because it possesses a grossly dependent client State in Pakistan that can largely ensure that. Unlike what many Western analysts believe, it is not terrorism from Afghanistan flowing into Pakistan and the rest of the world that is the real danger; it is terrorism from Pakistan imposed upon Afghanistan from which any real threat will emerge.
That having been said, even if it is not today or a year or two later that a terrorist threat from Afghanistan may appear for the US and its Western allies, leaving a highly vulnerable country to the mercy of a fundamentalist terrorist organization, which is turn is guided by a “rogue intelligence agency” that is known as a notorious and irresponsible sponsor of terrorism, cannot but be fraught with danger. As the China-US relationship sours further and hostilities escalate, for example in the South China Sea, China too could find an Afghanistan that is under its wings to be a tempting venue from which to initiate deniable third-party actions against the West. Pakistan would prove an invaluable Chinese ally if such a situation came to pass.
In these circumstances, it is imperative for the US and its allies to finally accept that international terrorism simply cannot be weakened unless the menace called Pakistan is tackled first. The US, liberated after all these years from its dependence on Pakistan on account of its war in Afghanistan, is at last at a juncture when it can actually abandon the carrot completely and focus solely on effective use of the stick to get Pakistan to mend its ways. Media accounts over the years suggest that any US General who has served in the region in the past two decades will, without much doubt, concur that this was the only way forward. In any case, by now it must be crystal clear to the US that Pakistan’s loyalties lie completely with China and not at all with it. In any situation where Pakistan finds itself having to choose between the US and China, despite the former’s generous largess and support over the years there is little doubt that Pakistan will choose China. It is, therefore, high time that Pakistan is seen for what it is by the US and the rest of the international community – a hopeless and deeply problematic case that must be dealt with appropriately and adequately.
As for Lieutenant General Hameed, back in Rawalpindi after the exhilarating and heady days celebrating the Taliban’s victory in Kabul, the realization cannot be too far away that his organization’s machinations and meddling in Afghanistan would before long come right back to haunt it.