The various cycles of nearly four decades of war in Afghanistan that contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terrorism have been defined by a cloak-and-dagger world of lies, deception, and double-dealing.
Now that global and regional powers are moving toward resolving the Afghan war through talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul’s Western-backed government, the efforts to bring the country’s warring sides and their backers to the negotiating tables too appears to be marred by intrigues and treachery.
The somewhat candid recent admission by Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's adviser for foreign affairs, that Islamabad is housing senior Taliban leaders and has influence over them surprised many because that country has always vehemently denied giving shelter to Taliban leaders after their hard-line regime crumbled in late 2001.
On March 1, Aziz told participants at a Washington think tank event that Islamabad holds sway over the Afghan Taliban because the insurgent leaders and their families live in Pakistan and "get some medical facilities."
In an overt reference to Pakistan’s ability to twist the Taliban’s arm, Aziz said that to compel rebel leaders to participate in the first direct talks with the Afghan government last July, Islamabad "restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospitals and other facilities, and threatened them that 'If you don't come forward and talk, we will at least expel you'."
Sources now claim Aziz's admission of Pakistani support to the Taliban was neither a slip of the tongue nor an indication that Islamabad now wants to ditch its longstanding Afghan allies.
Instead, they maintain, it is part of Islamabad's effort to retain its status as the principal international actor capable of shaping the future of neighboring Afghanistan. These sources say Islamabad wants to secure its interests and status at a time when global powers and the government of President Ashraf Ghani are pushing to wind down the war that has seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
An Afghan source privy to the efforts to convince the Taliban to join Kabul in negotiations with Pakistan says Islamabad is deeply troubled by its waning control over the Taliban, which has alarmed the Pakistani security establishment.
"So now, unlike before [when they denied any ties to the Taliban], they want to show a closer relationship with the Taliban," the source said. "This is motivated by Islamabad's desire to be considered relevant. It doesn’t want to miss out on any rewards the Afghan peace process might offer."
The source said that in recent years the Taliban have established contacts with regional powers such as Iran and Russia who might be covertly bankrolling them.
He added that unlike their pariah status in the years before and after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the Taliban are now seen as a party in the Afghan conflict whose grievances need to be addressed.
"The Taliban are now accepted as a reality and are dealt with more directly by powers such as the United States, Europe, and China, therefore they don't need Pakistan as much to explain them to the international powers and regional countries," he said.
The source said that Taliban advances on the Afghan battlefield since the December 2014 end of major NATO combat operations also gives the movement strong incentives to act independently.
"They now have vast territories in Afghanistan under their control and therefore do not rely as much on their [rear] bases in Pakistan," the source explained. "In the territories under their control, they collect taxes, engage in illegal mining, regulate the drug trade, and can also receive covert help from others countries such as Iran and Russia. This makes them less reliant on Islamabad's finances and financing through Pakistan."
The source, who has spent years navigating the often dangerous and murky world of the Afghan war, said even the Taliban military machine is no longer dependent on Pakistani prowess.
"They have captured and are still gaining weapons and ammunition from Afghan security forces, so they don't need as much [military] support from Pakistan as they did in the past," he said.
The infrequent arrests and unresolved targeted assassinations of Taliban leaders in Pakistan, he continued, have dented trust between the Afghan insurgents and their handlers in Pakistan, who mostly hail from the country's vast intelligence apparatus.
"Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban was not one based on respect but rather a patron-client relationship often kept on track through blackmail [of Taliban leaders]," the source said. "As a result, there is a lot of resentment among the Taliban ranks against Pakistan, and some of that has begun to surface."
Indeed, that covert relationship was put to the test after Islamabad apparently coerced Taliban leaders to meet Afghan government representatives on July 7.
A hard-hitting English-language commentary published on the Taliban's website on July 9 warned the "high-stakes gambit" could prove "catastrophic" for Pakistan.
"Its failure to persuade the Islamic Emirate on peace talks has already shown the limits of its influence over the Talban leadership," read the piece, titled A Pakistani Roulette: Pakistani-Brokered Peace Talks. "In order to compensate for this shortcoming, the Pakistani establishment has had to rely on 'mid-level' Taliban officials who can only speak in their personal capacity and have limited decision making capacity."
According to an Afghan source frequently in contact with the Taliban, Pakistani officials recently had a hard time trying to convince the Taliban to participate in direct talks with the Afghan government.
Last week, officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China agreed on a road map to end the Afghan war through negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban.
Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department adviser on Afghanistan, said Pakistan faces a quandary over its relationship with the Taliban. He said Islamabad is under pressure to acknowledge its relationship with the Taliban in order to facilitate the group's participation in the first round of peace talks expected to be hosted by Islamabad this month.
Rubin, however, said that changing its covert alliance with the Afghan Taliban is necessary if Islamabad wants its ally China to go ahead with planned energy and infrastructure projects. Beijing has invested $46 billion as part of its efforts to connect its restive western Xinjiang region to the Middle East through Pakistan.
"The Pakistanis are really desperate for the Chinese investments. The Chinese are not building a road to Mullah [Akhtar] Mansour's headquarters," he said, referring to Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province where Taliban leader Mullah Mansur and his top deputies are reputed to be living.
For years Islamabad has denied claims by Afghan and Western officials alleging that the Taliban leadership council operated out of Quetta. Pakistan even tactfully kept U.S. drones and special forces away from the dusty, teeming city.
Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador in Washington, said Aziz's pronouncements are also part of Pakistani efforts to regain some credibility in the United States.
"Something severely undermined by the total denial policy of the past," he said.