US-Pakistan troubled relations and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(16 August 2021) — The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is not an overnight or unexpected military victory for the Taliban or defeat for the United States. This disastrous outcome has been in the making for quite some time and accelerated exponentially with the deteriorating relations between the United States and Pakistan. Former president Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both exemplary examples of foreign policy naïveté, set in motion American exit and abandonment of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a major beneficiary, having a friendly Taliban government on its border replacing the pro-US government in Kabul.
Trump’s not-so-secret negotiated agreement with the Taliban, Pompeo’s personal meeting with the Taliban leader, sidelining and undermining the legitimate Afghan government began an irreversible process leading to the Taliban takeover. Notwithstanding the criticisms of the Biden administration’s seemingly chaotic U.S. military withdrawal, the dice had been cast by the Trump administration. The end was inevitable.
Pakistan has never been a trusted ally or partner of the United States on Afghanistan or on any other issue in this troubled region. Successive Pakistani governments view US-India relationship and partnerships as anathema to Pakistan’s national and regional interests. The U.S. has not been very adept at balancing between the two nuclear powers and has clearly demonstrated bias towards India. Pakistan has been kept in the game primarily because of its possession of nuclear arms. The Pakistan military relied on its partnership with the US military. This balance was in the overall national security interests of the United States which go well beyond U.S. interests in Afghanistan.
Most importantly, it was well known the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been an ally of the Taliban from the origin of the Afghan group’s emergence out of Pakistan where they were given birth and trained in Saudi Arabian funded madrassas (Wahhabism religious schools). The Pakistan military is also inextricably linked to the Taliban, allowing Taliban fighters safe haven in Pakistan when fleeing US military operations. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan denies his country’s connection to the Taliban, but no one should consider his denials of support for the Taliban as credible. The evidence is incontrovertible.
The rapid deterioration of political and military control of Afghanistan following US withdrawal ordered by President Joe Biden is being discussed in every foreign capital and in every foreign policy and international security forum. Media and foreign policy analysts are taking sides in the blame game. The incumbent U.S. president’s decision is under the microscope. Political opponents would like to pin the fall of Afghanistan on President Biden. While Biden deserves some criticisms for the outcome of the process employed to end US engagement in Afghanistan, the predictable outcome was triggered by decisions taken by the Trump administration. The process began more than three years before Biden was sworn in as president.
My analysis of Trump’s decision to end U.S. military-security assistance to Pakistan, “Blackmailing Pakistan is Bad U.S. Policy” published in The Ward Post on January 7, 2018, explained the dangers inherent in Trump’s Pakistan policy. As I stated then, “by undermining the Pakistani military, as President Donald Trump has done by cutting military-security assistance and support, it threatens U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the entire region.” This entire article should be read in the context of the unfolding events in Afghanistan. This possible outcome was to a large extent predicated on longstanding ISI-Taliban relationship. I warned about Trump’s actions as undermining moderate forces in Pakistan leaving the Islamist conservatives a free hand in control of the country and the military, including over the military’s control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. My analysis also highlighted control of the military’s and ISI’s support of the Taliban. The outcome was predictable.
Trump and Pompeo’s disdain for Pakistan was matched equally by Pakistan’s ultra-Islamic conservative prime minister Khan’s for the United States. Before Khan was elected prime minister, Trump cut support to Pakistan’s military and eliminated any possible Pakistan restraint on the Taliban. Coupled to Trump’s negotiations with, and legitimization of the Taliban, Pakistan was left to exercise a free hand in the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan. When Khan later assumed power in Pakistan, he could position Pakistan to take advantage of the U.S. imminent departure from Afghanistan.
In what appears to be an endorsement of the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan, prime mister Khan has been quoted in multiple Asian media publications, including The Times of India, as responding to the Taliban takeover by saying “Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery.” Khan, on occasions, has gone so far as to blame the English-oriented school system in Pakistan for Pakistani’s adopting “someone else’s culture” a somewhat hypocritical statement considering Khan’s own articulation in perfect English. Khan’s policy clearly points to having the people of Pakistan sever links to western culture by breaking the so-called cultural “shackles of slavery” as he perceived the Afghans have done.
Khan was sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan on August 18, 2018. His ultra-conservative Islamist religious beliefs are in sync with the Taliban’s. Under Khan’s leadership, Pakistan has a significant advantage over all other regional players, particularly over India and Iran, to influence decisions in Kabul and the course of Afghan history. Expect Pakistan to be the Taliban’s advocate for international legitimacy.
The Taliban was in control of Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and should be aware of the international community’s condemnation of the horrific human rights violations during the previous Taliban regime’s rule. Women and children suffered great indignity during this period. Taliban leadership at the time did not seem to care much about international condemnation or the economic effects of international sanctions, thus sanctions were not persuasive. Partly in response, the Taliban promoted poppy production to supply the Eastern European and Asian illicit drug markets reaping hundreds of millions of dollars to support the regime.
The Taliban will be aware that harboring terrorists, providing safe haven to train and grow in strength on Afghan territory will be met by a strong military response. However, without troops on the ground, the response will have limited effectiveness. The unknown at this time is whether under new leadership the Taliban will repeat the mistakes it made prior to 9/11, or will the Taliban seek global legitimacy? Given the cultural and religious orientation of the Taliban it is difficult to rule out a repeat of history.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post
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