Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Role Will Pakistan Play in Taliban Peace Talks?

The country gave Osama bin Laden and the Taliban a safe haven for years. Can they be an honest broker now?
Negotiations with Pakistani Taliban

Pakistan was never held to account for its role in sheltering Osama bin Laden, or offering refuge to terrorists as they organized attacks on American forces across the border in Afghanistan. Now, on the eve of a historic peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, the time may finally have come for Washington to reckon with Pakistan.

For the last 12 years, Pakistan gave the Taliban a “safe haven,” allowing them to reorganize and mount attacks, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., says in an interview with The American Conservative. 

“When the Taliban comes for these peace talks, where do they fly from? What planes are they flying on? Whose passports do they use for international travel? …They’re not traveling on Iranian or U.S. passports; they’re using Pakistani passports,” says Haqqani. “Pakistan is facilitating their travel. Pakistan is behind the peace talks, and the talks allow the Taliban to declare victory.”

Trump is eager to deliver on his campaign promise to end America’s longest war. And if the Taliban succeeds in its promise of a “reduction in violence” this week in Afghanistan, negotiators plan to sign a broader agreement on February 29, which will include a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Taliban has rejected the term “cease-fire” to describe this.

Nevertheless, if all goes well, the U.S., the Taliban, and the Afghan government are expected to cease all offensive operations, according to The Hill. The Taliban and the Afghan government will then begin talks, and the Taliban will guarantee that Afghanistan will never again become a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Though an unnamed senior administration official said the terms of the deal are “very specific,” the United States has not yet spelled out what those terms are, or what metrics will be used to determine success. Reportedly, the deal includes an end to suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and rocket strikes.

“The Trump administration has obtained the best return on investment from its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy than any other U.S. president has in the past 30 years,” Asfandyar Mir, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, says in an interview with The American Conservative. “It is close to a peace settlement in Afghanistan; it has induced some degree of cooperation with Pakistan; and meanwhile it has reduced the amount of money it has put into both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Trump administration has been more realistic about what can be achieved, and it has calibrated its coercive tools and positive inducement much better than previous administrations.”

“A lot of credit goes to the president for being unambiguous in calling for a settlement” and cutting “through the ambivalence of the bureaucratic process on what to do about Afghanistan,” Mir said.

Many of the details remain murky, and there are still dozens of pitfalls that could derail the tentative peace deal. But perhaps the biggest unknown is what role Pakistan will play.

“Building a sustainable peace in Afghanistan will be impossible without the support of Pakistan,” says Elizabeth Threlkeld, fellow and deputy director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center, in an interview with The American Conservative. “They have thus far demonstrated their willingness to cooperate by helping to bring the Taliban to the table, but this is only the first step in a long process of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives.”

“Pakistan is one of the primary external factors in these negotiations; they played an important role in getting the Taliban to the table in the first place,” says Adam Wunische, a Middle East program research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with The American Conservative. “The sort of impact Pakistan will have in the negotiations, and whether it will be successful, will depend on whether they pursue their priority of helping the Taliban to get as much as they can—the biggest piece of the pie as possible.”

Pakistan became a linchpin early on in America’s war on terror. Because Afghanistan is landlocked, all the main American supply lines ran through Pakistan. President Musharraf’s government assisted the U.S. with the capture of Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others in 2002 and 2003, while also receiving millions of dollars in American aid. Directorate S author Steven Coll called that money a “kind of legal bribery to Pakistan’s generals”:

The Pentagon would receive bills for air-defense expenses, even though al-Qaeda had no air force. One Special Forces colonel, Barry Shapiro, recalls invoices from Pakistan’s navy listing per diem pay for sailors “on duty fighting the Global War on Terrorism.” Shapiro tried to question some of the expenses: Was there any proof that the Pakistani army had indeed shot off the missiles it was asking to be reimbursed for? But he was told by his superiors to be quiet and pay up.

The few high-level al-Qaeda captures delivered by Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, bought years of America looking the other way as the ISI continued its “more secretive activities: arming and financing the Taliban and other Afghan militant groups sympathetic to Pakistan rather than India,” writes Coll.

Two fertilizer factories in Pakistan were used to make 85 percent of the improvised explosive devices that killed and maimed U.S. troops and civilians in Afghanistan. Yet despite repeated American requests to eliminate those plants, the Pakistanis refused to do so, says General Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff, in an interview with The American Conservative.

Keane was the first senior U.S. military leader to go after the Taliban in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, and within weeks of the American invasion, he says the Taliban had crumbled. Unfortunately, instead of following al-Qaeda into Pakistan and eliminating them, U.S. military assets and intelligence capability began to shift into Iraq. The Iraq war didn’t begin until the spring of 2003, but because the U.S. took its eye off the ball, Keane says, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were able to quietly move across the border into Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s government and military have been complicit in supporting the Taliban since the Taliban re-emerged after the U.S. disposed of the Taliban government in 2001. When the Taliban government was deposed and its fighters defeated, many of the fighters fled to Quetta in Southern Pakistan and the Haqqani network headquartered in Miram Shah,” says Keane. “From these two locations, Pakistan provided support to the Taliban by providing intelligence, training Taliban fighters, and logistical and financial support as well. These two safe havens not only protected the leadership of the Taliban, but provided a place for Taliban fighters to come to refresh themselves and get off the battlefield.”

“Despite three administrations telling Pakistan to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban at these two locations, the Pakistanis have never conceded that they were protecting the Afghan Taliban. In other words, they lie to our faces,” Keane says.

Another first-hand account comes from intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart. The Department of Defense bought the entire first printing of the book in order to prevent the public from reading it unredacted.

When it comes to the current peace talks, Keane is skeptical.

The Taliban calculates that a U.S. withdrawal will provide a massive morale boost to their movement and perhaps even enable them to overthrow the Afghan government. So they are willing to say anything to get America out, says Keane.

“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to make a deal with the Taliban, but I’m arguing for all U.S. and Afghan officials to be very clear-eyed about what the Taliban’s ultimate objective is,” he says.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the Taliban doesn’t want democracy. They are deeply unpopular in Afghanistan and can’t win a political election.

Haqqani says the difficulty heading into negotiations with the Taliban is that America has already telegraphed that it will be leaving within a year, which makes it easy for enemies to hang on just a little bit longer.

“The Taliban used to say, ‘The Americans have the watches; we have the time,'” says Haqqani. “Meaning: we will wait them out. When someone is trying to wait you out, you try to make them think they will have to wait a long time. But instead, we’ve made them think it will only be another six months before we withdraw” and we have been doing that for nearly two decades.

“The problem is that Americans have never been able to decide what to do with Pakistan,” says Haqqani. “What do you do with the terrorists that take refuge in Pakistan and then return and shoot at you the next day? The stalemate we are facing has been created by the unwillingness to do something about the safe havens in Pakistan. Pakistan receives $33 billion in U.S. aid, but the Pakistan military doesn’t want to do what we ask. There’s an unwillingness to acknowledge that reality, especially when Washington has the desire to cut a deal.”