Pakistan’s Islamist PM: U.S. ‘Really Messed It Up’ in Afghanistan

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Tuesday the United States “really messed it up in Afghanistan” by foolishly believing it could keep the Taliban out of power.

He expressed annoyance that he is accused of supporting the brutal Taliban extremists for recognizing what he saw as the simple reality that the Taliban must be part of the Afghan government.

Khan said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that American leaders were mistaken to “look for a military solution in Afghanistan when there never was one.”

“And people like me who kept saying that there’s no military solution, who know the history of Afghanistan, we were called — people like me were called anti-American. I was called Taliban Khan,” he complained.

Khan said the U.S. and NATO should have negotiated with the Taliban when they still had leverage from a strong troop presence in Afghanistan. He said it would be “very difficult for now to get them to compromise” after the withdrawal of Western forces, which the Taliban interpreted as victory.

Khan said decades-long allegations that Pakistan gives intelligence and financial support to the Taliban are “extremely unfair.” Inconveniently for Khan’s argument, the allegations are also extremely well-documented and supported by video evidence. The Pakistani Interior Ministry admitted last month that senior Taliban officials are living comfortably in Islamabad.

Pakistan has been warned for decades that its Taliban-supporting games would come back to haunt it someday, and Khan acknowledged a full-blown Afghan civil war would become the “worst-case scenario” for his country, with a looming cross-border refugee crisis and potential unrest among ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan. Khan said the Afghan conflict spreading into Pakistan is “the last thing we want.”

Deutsche Welle (DW) observed last week that Khan’s Islamist government is increasingly nervous about blowback from its years of support from the even more Islamist Taliban. Contrary to official denials, Pakistanis living near the Afghan border said the Taliban has been at least indulged by local and national authorities, who fear they no longer have the power to cut off the Taliban’s growing influence:

“The Taliban enjoy local support in our area, but the rallies are not possible without support from state authorities,” a resident told DW on condition of anonymity. “Initially, the clerics were asking for donations for the Afghan Taliban at mosques; now they are coming door-to-door to generate funds for the ‘Afghan jihad,'” he said. 

Mohsin Dawar, a progressive opposition lawmaker from Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas, said that “the Taliban continue to roam freely in different parts of Pakistan, including Quetta.” 

“It is not possible without the state’s support,” he said. 

DW noted Pakistan has long played a double game by supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan but formally outlawing its hardcore Islamist branch in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The game is changing as the resurgent Afghan Taliban lends support to its franchise across the border and actively recruits Pakistanis to help it fight in Afghanistan.

For all of Khan’s protestations about not supporting the Taliban, it is an indisputable fact that Pakistanis who die fighting for the Taliban receive lavish heroic funerals back home, complete with pro-Taliban chants and celebrations of martyrdom. India TV News Service (IANS) last week quoted “intelligence sources” who said these elaborate funerals were designed with input from Pakistani military officers to generate maximum identification with the Taliban “martyrs” and “ensure more recruitment.”

Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., noted that Pakistani officials have tried to justify support for the Taliban by claiming it gave them political “leverage” with the group, but now Khan’s administration is discovering it doesn’t have much leverage at all.

“Islamabad has previously suggested that its relationship with the Taliban puts it in a great position to facilitate talks between the insurgents and the Americans, and more recently the Afghan state. But, when it says it has limited leverage, it appears to be contradicting its own message. There is public support for the Taliban within Pakistan and over the years Pakistani nationals remain their volunteer fighters,” Kugelman told DW.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said “panic is spreading through Pakistan’s halls of power” as top officials fear Pakistan’s “carefully calibrated support” for the Taliban since 2001 has created an extremist monster that can no longer be controlled.

“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” a senior Pakistani official fretted. 

The WSJ interpreted Khan’s frequently stated point that getting the Taliban to a “political settlement” will be difficult if they think they have “won the war” as a tacit concession that Pakistan has much less influence over the Afghan extremists than it believed, and would much rather deal with a Taliban uneasily integrated into the Kabul government than a triumphant Taliban that seizes total control by force.

Khan, himself an Islamist who likes to compare insulting Mohammed to Holocaust denial when demanding limits on Western free speech, may find it difficult to ride the tiger his country has unleashed by indulging the Taliban for so long. Khan also notably referred to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda chief whose ties to the Taliban prompted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as a “martyr.”

Writing at the Jerusalem Post in early July, Kelly Alkhouli of the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs said Khan’s dreams of expanding Pakistan’s regional influence and using jihadis as a weapon against India may be crumbling as other ambitious powers like Turkey and Qatar rush to fill the “vacuum” left by U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Without U.S. troops or a reliable peace deal, the continued violence will spill over into Pakistan and result in a mass influx of refugees. A Taliban victory would also embolden other Islamist groups present in Pakistan that wish to see an Islamic revolution take place,” Alkhouli warned. “Khan’s lack of control of his country’s own military and security apparatus will cause greater internal divisions that could make Pakistan susceptible to a coup or revolution.”

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