The strong faith that the US political leadership reposed in him helped him facilitate ISI’s backstage strategic and tactical moves, which ultimately led to the fall of Kabul.
New Delhi: On 15 August, the Taliban captured Kabul defeating the 350,000 strong US-trained Afghan army. Dominant media coverage blamed the Afghan government’s incompetent and corrupt political leadership for the Afghan security forces’ surrender without a fight.
However, Pakistan’s role in orchestrating the Taliban coup was missing. This despite Pakistan’s double game of funding, sheltering, and training Taliban began in the early 1990s, with Islamabad playing a critical role in Kabul’s recent capture.
Reportedly, Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US diplomat assigned to lead the Afghan peace process and the withdrawal of the US forces, found a good friend in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s external intelligence service. The ISI has a history of cultivating top US diplomats. In the past, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) investigated its ties with Robin Raphel, the veteran US diplomat who facilitated the creation of separatist Hurriyat in Kashmir, an intellectual arm of Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups.
The aforementioned envoy to the Taliban, known for his lavish lifestyle, had once nurtured hopes of becoming the Afghan President. Pandering to his ambitions, the Pakistan Army chief Gen Bajwa and the ISI chief Lt Gen Hameed provided him almost exclusive access. The idea was to raise his political and diplomatic stature in Washington. When the Biden administration reconfirmed his appointment, ISI officials privately claimed to be the first to know about it. Mr Khalilzad deftly used that exclusive access to Bajwa and ISI chief to gain supreme authority in all the matters pertaining to the Afghan peace process. Being the principal architect of the Doha accords, he convinced the Trump administration to side line the Afghan government, compel them to release Taliban prisoners, and go ahead with withdrawal without looking at the fallout. This is precisely what Islamabad wanted. Doing Islamabad’s bidding, the American diplomat, who US Presidents considered to be the primary repository of the knowledge of Afghanistan’s conflict dynamics on account of his Afghan origins and a long diplomatic career in the region, successfully made Americans turn a blind eye to the fallout of the hasty withdrawal favoured by Trump and Biden. Also, he provided assessments shielding Pakistan’s true intent and plan to stage an aggressive Taliban onslaught and capture Kabul immediately after the US withdrawal.
Further, the strong faith that the US political leadership reposed in him helped him facilitate ISI’s backstage strategic and tactical moves, which ultimately led to the fall of Kabul in less than a week, belying the predictions of three to six months of the US intelligence.
Apparently, US intelligence agencies had finally realized that he was furthering Pakistan’s interest more than the US; however, they could not dent his game plan, most likely, for the following reasons: As per the author’s informed sources, the person in question used his exclusive access to the Pakistani army and intelligence chiefs to make the Trump and Biden teams dependent on him. Secondly, the US’ strategic decision-makers thought of using his influence with the Pakistani deep state to secure an honourable exit from Afghanistan. After the Doha accords, the Americans realized that their best option was an honourable exit in the given situation when the Taliban continued terror acts. In effect, it meant an interim government with members from the Taliban and Afghan government and a reasonably peaceful withdrawal.
However, Pakistan was as usual planning a complete spoiler for the US. Washington had vested “Zal” with substantial authority to steer the peace, making his words and choices highly influential among Afghan politicians. However, the US envoy used that authority to further Pakistan’s interests. He single-handedly destroyed Afghan unity. He negotiated with them separately, established the Taliban’s separate communication channels with them, sowing seeds of dissension and friction. As a result, there was complete confusion in the lack of coordination, clear line of instruction, and air support for Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), operations. Notably, the ANDSF, which has become a punching bag after 15 August, is the force that has fought bravely against the Taliban for the last 20 years.
Further, Khalilzad kept the US in check, convincing Washington to keep New Delhi out of the ambit of the critical negotiations. Indians, guarded and sceptical under the thin line of distrust and unease that ails Indo-US relations in perpetuity and their indecisiveness, also did not display any proactive approach and forward-thinking to address the situation and carve out a space for themselves.
On the other side, a much bigger plan was in place. Afghanistan was never about a bunch of Taliban terrorists. At a deeper level, state actors like Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and most importantly, Pakistan were facilitating and navigating the Taliban’s swift and smooth journey into power, with long-term geopolitical and geo-economic motives. However, with its narrow focus on the Taliban and irrational trust in Pakistan, the US failed to understand the nuances of the oriental statecraft and came out as a miserable failure. Today, when Khalil Haqqani, a Haqqani network terrorist with a bounty of $5 million over his head, plays a crucial role in forming the Taliban’s government, Pakistan’s critical role in staging this coup becomes blatantly evident.
The Taliban’s victory has raised the Pakistan army’s stature in the eyes of its domestic and South Asian Wahhabi admirers, reducing to insignificance the possibilities of restoring democracy in Pakistan.
To sum up, Pakistan has failed not only the US but also the civilized world. And yet it goes scot-free.
Abhinav Pandya is a founder and CEO of Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitical and security affairs think-tank.