PRAGUE, For more than two decades, Pakistan has been accused of creating and sustaining the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan as one of the biggest and most ruthless surrogate forces in modern times.
A leading Western expert of the region, however, says the reality of this opaque relationship is much more complex.
Barnett Rubin, a New York University academic, says Islamabad’s control is akin to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. While the former Iraqi dictator wanted friends and foes to believe he had destructive chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear arms, Western militaries found little concrete evidence of such weapons after deposing him in 2003.
“They [the Pakistanis] were in this position for many years where they have to deny that they’re supporting the Taliban while secretly hoping we believe they control them,” said Rubin, who advised the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan and Pakistan for four years.
“What gives Pakistan leverage over the Afghan government and the United States is the belief that Pakistan can control the Taliban,” he said. “Because if Pakistan has no influence over them, why are we even talking to Pakistan?”
After the 2014 departure of most international troops from Afghanistan, Kabul and Washington leaned on Islamabad to deliver the Taliban for peace talks.
But the Taliban only participated in one round of peace talks in July 2015. They even publically complained of Pakistani arm-twisting afterward.
“Now they’re in a position where what’s started to happen is they had to deliver, and it turned out they were unable,” Rubin said of Islamabad’s efforts to coerce the Taliban into negotiations with Kabul. “They face a choice: If they don’t really have enough control to deliver them, even though they’d agreed to, what will they do? Is Pakistan a country? Is it going to control its own territory or not?”
(Read the complete transcript of his interview here)
In March, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's adviser for foreign affairs, admitted that Islamabad has considerable influence over the Taliban because its leaders live in the country.
"We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities,” Aziz said at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington. "We can use those levers to pressurize them to say, 'Come to the table’.”
In subsequent months, however, a quadrilateral forum of officials from China, Pakistan, the United States, and Afghanistan was unable to entice the Taliban into talks despite Islamabad’s promises to exert its influence.
Rubin says Kabul has lost confidence in Islamabad’s leverage to the extent that it sees no use for such talks.
“Pakistan has not shown it has either the capability or the will to bring the Taliban to negotiate in that [quadrilateral] format,” he said. “The Afghan government] believes it needs to negotiate with Pakistan, who it believes controls the Taliban, and the Taliban don’t believe that, because they think they need to negotiate with the United States, which they think runs the Afghan government.”
In his role as a senior adviser to U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2013, Rubin had opportunities to discuss the issue with Pakistani officials including members of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
He says that in the initial years, Pakistani even strongly denied the Taliban presence in their country but later acknowledged they were present in Pakistan and were influenced by Islamabad.
He says Pakistani officials are fearful of provoking another armed conflict as they deal with domestic security challenges such as a war with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the northwestern tribal areas and a simmering separatist insurgency by Baluch nationalists in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
“If they [Pakistanis] attack the Afghan Taliban, they say, they will then ally with the TTP and fight the Pakistan army,” he said. “Then they’re worried they would get support from Pashtuns in both countries, and that’s a nightmare situation for them.”
Such a prognosis, Rubin says, has prompted Pakistan to demand the Afghan government offer more concessions to get the Taliban back into Afghanistan.
“But then the Afghan government says -- quite reasonably -- we can’t offer them something if we haven’t spoken to them and we don’t know what they want. So they want to talk to them first,” he said, referring to years of diplomatic efforts that saw the Taliban establish a political office in the Qatari capital Doha and Kabul create a peace council to oversee reconciliation among Afghans.
Rubin says that to break the current impasse, Islamabad should deny the Taliban the freedom of maneuvering they currently enjoy.
“Their leader [Mullah Akhtar Mohammad] Mansur was killed by a [U.S] drone while riding down a major highway in Balochistan, and he wasn’t even being followed by the ISI; they didn’t even know where he was,” he said. “That means they’re given a great deal of freedom, more than a lot of other foreigners and even Pakistanis.”
Rubin says Pakistan should treat the Afghan insurgents the same way it deals with its own rebels.
“[Pakistanis] need to start treating them in the same way they treat the TTP,” he said. “The role of Pakistan should be to close their offices and their training camps and say, no more so-called jihad from Pakistan.”
Rubin says he has heard that Pakistan’s military has told the Afghan government that it is not able to control ISI’s offices in the western cities of Quetta and Peshawar near the Afghan border. Kabul believes most Afghan Taliban leaders operate from these two cities.
“I don’t know if that’s true, [but] if I were the chief of army staff of Pakistan, that would be a much bigger threat to the integrity of the state than anything the terrorists could do,” he noted.