The powerful head of Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency appeared relaxed in his brown chinos and blue blazer as the media gathered after he arrived at Kabul’s five-star Sarena Hotel.
“Please don’t worry -- everything will be okay,” Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed told a Western journalist on September 4 after being queried what will happen next in Afghanistan.
A video and photos of him sipping coffee in the hotel lobby prompted intense speculation over his motives for making a very public appearance and brushing with the media on his visit.
Some in Afghanistan and Pakistan saw it as confirmation of their belief that the Taliban is nothing more than a Pakistani proxy whose harsh rule in the 1990s and two-decade insurgency against U.S.-led forces were part of Islamabad’s quest to dominate its western neighbor.
Others took it as a signal to Pakistan's archrival, India, whose support for the previous Afghan government prompted Islamabad to accuse it of orchestrating instability inside its territory from Afghanistan
Still other Afghans linked Hameed's visit to the Taliban’s ongoing offensive in Panjshir Province, which some have accused Pakistan of aiding.
Such allegations and Islamabad's previous support of the Taliban led to hundreds of protesters taking to Kabul’s streets on September 7 and chanting slogans against Pakistan. Islamabad and the Taliban have both consistently denied accusations that they are allied and work with each other.
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Many regional experts are painting a more nuanced picture of the relationship.
Some say Islamabad still wields decisive influence over the Taliban and is intimately involved in shaping its government and worldview.
Others describe more complicated relations that are likely to change now that the Taliban no longer needs to rely on Pakistani sanctuaries as it attempts to govern Afghanistan and deal with an international community highly skeptical of its intentions.
“The ISI chief's recent visit was both for symbolic purposes and substantial,” Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan consultant with the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL's Gandhara. “Symbolically, it is important for Pakistan to portray its influence in Afghanistan and purport to be the most important power with influence on the movement.”
Bahiss, however, added that unlike in the 1990s and the initial years of the Taliban insurgency in the 2000s, Pakistan must now compete with Qatar for influence over the Taliban.
In 2013, the Taliban established a political office in Qatar that eventually negotiated an agreement with the United States in 2020 that paved the way for Washington to end the longest war in its history.
“Much the same way that Qatar has [been] a key intermediary between the Taliban and the West, Pakistan wants to replicate a similar role between China, Central Asia, Russia, and the Taliban,” he noted.
But Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military, said Hameed’s visit highlights Islamabad’s eagerness to shape the incoming administration.
She added that while Pakistan isn’t interested in the day-to-day running of a Taliban government, it is keen on having the right people in the right positions.
“Hameed’s visit was instrumental in how the various Taliban factions decided who to appoint as the head of the state or head of the government -- Mullah Hassan Akhund instead of Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar,” she told Gandhara.
Baradar, head of the Taliban’s Qatar office and political deputy to Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, was widely tipped to lead the next Taliban government.
But Akhund, a close confidant of Akhundzada and reclusive leader of the Taliban leadership council, was announced on September 7 as the head of government.
Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani politician and critic of Islamabad’s approach toward Afghanistan, agrees.
“Hameed’s Kabul visit was most probably aimed at helping the Taliban overcome its factional differences and form an inclusive government, as well as for guiding them on security matters,” he told Gandhara. “A foreign state can’t lord over another like this, even if it were a protectorate.”
But the Pakistani government and the Taliban deny such accusations.
“He was invited by the Taliban leadership so he went there,” Raoof Hasan, an adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, told the BBC of Hameed’s visit. “Why should Pakistan be assisting or asking or doing something concerning a matter, which is Afghanistan’s internal affairs?” he said in response to Pakistan’s alleged role in the Panjshir offensive and in crafting the Taliban’s new government. “We have nothing to do with Afghanistan’s internal matters.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid offered a different explanation.
He told journalists in Kabul on September 6 that the ISI chief had requested a meeting with Taliban leaders a month ago but it could only happen now because “our leaders were busy.”
“They were concerned about security along the Durand Line,” Mujahid said of the 19th-century demarcation that forms the current border between the two neighbors that Islamabad has fenced to prevent an influx of militants.
“They were worried about the prisoners recently freed from prisons across Afghanistan. In their view, some of these prisoners might harm them,” he added. “But we assured them our soil will not be used against anyone.”
Before the Taliban captured Kabul, Islamabad accused the Afghan government and India of supporting remnants of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which reportedly fled to Afghanistan to escape a large-scale Pakistani military operation in 2014.
Many in Pakistan are now hoping the Afghan Taliban will rein in the TTP.
“It will be an ongoing struggle and it is not going to be over soon. I am not sure Pakistan will be able to subdue the TTP,” Siddiqa, a research associate at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, noted. “[And] the Taliban needs more foot soldiers to retain ground in Afghanistan, so I don’t think [the Afghan Taliban] will be able to abandon their foot soldiers.”
Bahiss said the Taliban’s relations with Pakistan have evolved considerably. Islamabad became one of the movement’s major supporters after its emergence in 1994 and was one of the three states to recognize its government after it captured Kabul in 1996. Some Pakistani officials have even admitted that the Taliban leadership found refuge in their country after the demise of their regime in Afghanistan in late 2001.
“Their relations have gone through a number of evolutions,” Bahiss said. “Since at least the mid-2000s, the Taliban has been seeking to end its dependence on Pakistan. The Taliban achieved a major diplomatic victory when it opened its Doha office. The fact that it resisted Pakistani mediation was a major blow to Pakistan.”
Despite repeated denials by officials, Pakistan has supported the Taliban insurgency. But it did go after individual leaders.
Baradar was arrested in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid in 2010. In 2012, the Taliban announced the death of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, their former defense minister. The Taliban said he had died inside a Pakistani prison in 2010. In May 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan after he reportedly returned from a trip to neighboring Iran.
According to Bahiss, Islamabad has new motives in its relations with the Taliban.
“Since 2018, Pakistan has been seeking to portray itself as a responsible interlocutor on the Afghanistan issues,” he said. “I suspect Pakistan will continue seeking to build a unified regional approach in dealing with the Taliban.”
Since the Taliban takeover on August 15, Islamabad has attempted to allay the fears of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
On September 5, Islamabad hosted a virtual diplomatic meeting with representatives of China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. Mohammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said the meeting aimed to build a regional approach to address common challenges.
“A prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan would provide impetus to economic integration, strong people-to-people linkages, enhanced trade, and regional connectivity,” he tweeted.
Weeks later, it remains unclear whether Pakistan’s neighbors are ready to go along with its plans for Afghanistan.
Iran and Tajikistan have already voiced their opposition, and Dushanbe is even seen as sheltering the anti-Taliban resistance that is based in Panjshir.
Islamabad’s quest to shape Afghanistan’s destiny through the Taliban, however, has a major impact at home.
“There will be a greater push for Pakistan to become a theocracy just like the Taliban [is creating in Afghanistan],” Siddiqa noted.