With the announcement of an interim government by the hardliner Islamist Taliban on September 7, the overt presence of strong ties between the Afghan insurgent group and Pakistan’s intelligence agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – has been questioned.
The announcement of an interim government came days before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that changed the global narrative against terrorism and prompted the US and its western allies to announce the “war on terror” against Islamist militant groups in the Middle East and Asia.
After coming back to power after almost 20 years, the Taliban appointed 33 cabinet ministers, 17 of whom have been on the UN Security Council’s list of designated terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. This includes acting Prime Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, one of the group’s founders. The ISI’s close relationship with the Taliban’s leadership, with allegations that it is backing the group since its inception via funding, military training and providing them with safe harbour in Pakistan, has been at the forefront of the discussion on Afghanistan.
The role of Pakistan’s intelligence agency behind the formation of this interim government is noticeable in the inclusion of Sirajuddin Haqqani as Interior Minister, and his uncle Khalil Haqqani as the acting minister for refugees, in the cabinet. Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the former mujahideen fighter and the US’ anti-Soviet asset Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose death was announced in September 2018, is the head of the Haqqani Network – a sprawling Islamist terrorist mafia with close ties to the al-Qaeda based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. Haqqani was responsible for the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 that killed 58 people, and the attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.
The inclusion of the Haqqani network in the interim government announced by the Taliban came three days after the ISI chief visited Afghanistan. Since the past few months, and especially after seizing, the Taliban 2.0 has been trying to project a moderate version of itself to the world. They have tried to show a moderate version of the Islamic Emirate that believes in human rights, women’s rights and liberties, justice and democracy, but have stressed that all of that will be done only in lieu of the Sharia law. However, the situation on the ground has been rather contradictory, and is reminiscent of the Taliban’s previous regime from 1996 to 2001.
Before the announcement of the interim government, there were various reports on social media that said there were internal rifts within the Taliban. Although the group never testified to these reports, the sudden visit of ISI chief Faiz Hameed just three days before the announcement of the interim government raised eyebrows on the country’s influence on the Taliban. There were also reports that this sudden arrival of Hameed was aimed to broker a peace agreement between Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and the Haqqani network.
“According to Afghan sources, Hameed rushed to Kabul after a clash between Baradar and Haqqani-supported groups during which, Baradar sustained injuries. The Haqqani and many other Taliban factions simply do not accept Haibatullah as their leader,” said ex-Pentagon official Michael Rubin as quoted by the Hindustan Times.
Looking at the developments in the Taliban leadership, some analysts believe that the Doha faction of the Taliban led by Baradar, who also heads the political office in Doha and was at the front of negotiations with the West, has been marginalised. The Baradar faction was apparently quite pragmatic and moderate, which is why the West wanted him to be the head of the interim government. As reports regarding internal rifts within the Taliban leadership started circulating, the arrival of the ISI chief was viewed with high scepticism.
Reiterating his stand on Pakistan’s possible direct involvement in the tragic affairs, former vice-president Amrullah Saleh said, “It is the Pakistanis who are in-charge as effectively a colonial power. But this is not going to last… They may have territorial control, but as our history has shown, control of land does not necessarily mean control over the people or stability.”
Saleh, a vocal critic of Pakistan, continues, “They have simply exploited the flawed policy of a fatigued American president – not necessarily the United States itself – and they are being micromanaged by Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI. The Taliban’s spokesperson receives directions, literally every hour, from the Pakistani embassy,” as quoted by NDTV.
The latest meeting hosted by the ISI chief with the intelligence chiefs of key regional countries, including Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in Islamabad on Saturday, indicates Pakistan’s hectic efforts to engage with world leaders to develop consensus on the Afghanistan crisis and to showcase its ability to be the chief negotiator.
Sirajuddin and Khalil Haqqani are still listed as wanted by the US, with millions of dollars in bounties on offer for their capture. Sirajuddin Haqqani has been one of the two deputy leaders of the Taliban since 2016, and has a $10 million bounty on his head. In this light, it will be ironical for the US and its allies to deal with these designated terrorists who have embedded themselves into the political space of Afghanistan via coercion and force. The fate of Afghan citizens continues to hang in uncertainty.
Mullah Akhund, who has been appointed as the prime minister, had ordered the destruction of the magnificent standing Buddha statues in 2001 that were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley, in the sixth century. Akhund served as the foreign minister during the tenure of the Taliban’s first regime. After the ouster of the regime following the 9/11 attacks, he reportedly sought refuge in Pakistan and headed the ‘Rehbari Shura’ council of leaders, also known as the ‘Quetta Shura’. He has been operating entirely in exile from Pakistan, and is said to have played a pivotal role in shaping the Taliban’s hardliner religious identity that found its genesis from the strict Islamic ideologue called Deobandi.
The side-lining of Abdul Ghani Baradar who has now been appointed as the deputy prime minister, reiterates the ISI’s strong ties with Akhund and its distrust in Baradar. Reportedly, Baradar’s conciliatory politics with Hamid Karzai, the then Afghan president, had earlier cost him eight years of incarceration in a Pakistani jail until the former US president, Donald Trump wanted him in Doha.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on the pullout of American troops from Afghan soil at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When questioned about Pakistan’s “duplicitous” role in aiding the Taliban by two Democrat lawmakers, Blinken replied, “For the reasons you’ve cited as well as others, this is one of the things that we’re going to be looking in the days and weeks ahead: the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role that we would want to see it play in the coming years, and what it will take for it to do that.” This remark manifests that in the coming days, it would be really difficult for Pakistan to confront the Political criticism amidst its strong ties with the Taliban, and in the worst case scenario, it could lead to Pakistan losing its economic and defence ties with the US and its allies.
On Tuesday, in a meeting in Kabul with the acting foreign minister of Afghanistan, Amir Khan Muttaqi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and that it will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Taliban government.
While highlighting itself as the acting negotiator, the ISI seems to be using a “closed door” operating mechanism to deal with the Taliban and produce ruckus in the region. This interim government may or may not find global recognition, but it is expected to bring in only more blood-shed, hunger, human rights violations, the primary sufferers of which would only be the common people of Afghanistan.