A quarterly report by the U.S. Department of Defense to Congress has noted continued Pakistani support for violence by the hard-line Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
The report by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, compiled with the help of the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development, observes a continuity in Islamabad’s quest for what it has long defined as its interests in Afghanistan.
The report, covering the period from January to March of Operation Freedom's Sentinel, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, is significant because it covers the first month after Washington signed an initial peace agreement with the Taliban. Islamabad had celebrated the February 29 deal and highlighted its role in making it possible.
“Pakistan continues to harbor the Taliban and associated militant groups in Pakistan, such as the Haqqani Network, which maintains the ability to conduct attacks against Afghan interests,” said the report, issued on May 19, while referring to reporting by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The report noted that Islamabad has encouraged the Afghan Taliban to participate in peace talks but that it “refrained from applying coercive pressure that would seriously threaten its relationship with the Afghan Taliban to dissuade the group from conducting further violence,” the report said, citing DIA reporting.
The findings are in contrast with recent statements by Pakistani leaders who have repeatedly assured Washington that they support peace and stability in Afghanistan.
“The prime minister reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for facilitation of the Afghan peace process and underscored the importance of next steps leading to the earliest commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” a Pakistani government statement said after an April 22 telephone conversation between Prime Minister Imran Khan and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Pentagon’s report says that according to the DIA Islamabad’s primary strategic objective in Afghanistan is to counter its regional archrival, India, and prevent the spillover of instability from the neighboring country.
“Pakistan likely views increased Taliban influence in Afghanistan as supporting its overall objectives and will seek to influence intra-Afghan peace talks in a direction favorable to Pakistan,” the report noted.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s principal foreign backer after its emergence in southern Afghanistan in the 1990s and together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized its government in 1996. Islamabad supported the U.S.-led military attack in October 2001 that led to the downfall of its regime in December 2001.
In the following years, senior Pakistani leaders denied the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in their country, but Afghan and Western leaders insisted that those sanctuaries were key to the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But in a candid admission in March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani PM’s foreign affairs adviser, admitted that Islamabad had considerable leverage over the Taliban because its leaders lived in the country.
"We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here," he told a think tank audience in Washington.
In May 2016, the erstwhile Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur was killed in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan by a U.S. drone. While traveling on a Pakistani passport, he had reportedly developed differences with Islamabad before his killing.
In a sign that Balochistan remains a key bastion for Taliban militants, Mullah Mullah Fazel, a former top Taliban military commander and senior member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, traveled to Balochistan in late March.
“The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a [Islamic law],” he told Taliban fighters and supporters in the rural district of Pishin near the Afghan border on March 25. “We will not let the sacrifices of our martyrs be wasted. God willing, we will see the victory,” said Fazel, a former inmate at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
In a joint statement with Russia, Iran, and China on May 18, Pakistan reiterated its support for peace in Afghanistan.
“Inclusive Intra-Afghan negotiations [are] the only way to realize the Afghan national reconciliation, leading to prompt [an] end of the prolonged conflict,” the statement noted while calling on all sides in the Afghan conflict to agree to a “comprehensive cease-fire.”
The statement, however did not mention Taliban sanctuaries outside Afghanistan.