Analysis

How A US Ally Helped Build The Taliban Into The Rulers Of Afghanistan

(Photo by Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
Font Size:

One of America’s key allies has been funding, equipping and otherwise supporting the Taliban for nearly three decades with little-to-no consequence from Washington: Pakistan.

Now, members of Congress are raising questions about how the Biden administration will deal with Pakistan following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Experts claim it would have been impossible for the Taliban to capture Kabul without years of support from Pakistan, yet the latter remains a designated major non-NATO ally of the U.S.

Some experts characterize Pakistan as having “founded” the Taliban. The only country in the world to be founded specifically in the name of Islam, Pakistan was one of only three countries globally to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan when it first ruled the country from 1996-2001. Following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the other two allies of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut off diplomatic ties. Pakistan did not.

“The rest of the world believes that Pakistan has always thought that it would prefer having an Islamic fundamentalist government in Afghanistan rather than an Afghan nationalist government,” former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani, now a fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the Daily Caller. “The reason for that is that Pakistan thinks an Afghan nationalist government is more likely to collude with India to try and deal with the areas of Pakistan that were originally Afghanistan… They have an ethnic overlap, they have the same people living on both sides of the border, so Pakistan always felt that Afghanistan under a nationalist government would support nationalist claims inside Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency provided the Taliban with financial, military and logistical support throughout the 1990s as the militants fought to take control of Afghanistan. (RELATED: Taliban Leader Released From Prison By US Request Returns To Afghanistan 20 Years After Losing Power)

A 2001 report from Human Rights Watch describes the unique relationship between the two parties: “Of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the ongoing fighting, Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.”

Pakistani author and foreign policy writer Ahmed Rashid estimates that as many as 80,000-100,000 Pakistani troops fought alongside the Taliban prior to the year 2000. The support continued well after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 as well. When they were toppled by American-led coalition forces, where did the Taliban’s leadership flee to? Pakistan.

While the Islamic militants were biding their time and waiting for the U.S. withdrawal that would eventually come 20 years later, Pakistani security leaders were helping them rebuild and re-tool. Their leadership continued to hide out in Pakistan, largely safe from the long arm of America’s anti-terror operation. The city of Quetta, the largest in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, became infamous as a de facto capital for Taliban operations out of Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

“When the leaders are not under pressure of being eliminated, and enjoy safety and security, it’s easier for them to run an insurgency. So I doubt the Taliban could have succeeded without Pakistani support,” Haqqani said.

The drug trade across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border functioned as a key driver of revenue for the insurgents. Now, with full control of Afghanistan’s poppy fields, the Taliban control the world’s strongest narcotics state.

What is the U.S. doing about the fact that one of its self-proclaimed major allies is propping up one of its key adversaries?

The answer is not a whole lot. Because of America’s reliance on Pakistan for logistical support during the Afghan war, the U.S. was unable to come down hard on Islamabad. As a result, Pakistan was able to essentially play both sides of the war to great effect.

American leaders are well aware of the bind they’re in. Pakistan has not done a good job of hiding their support for the Taliban. The criticism has transcended presidential administrations and partisan lines.

Back in 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said that the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate accused of carrying out numerous heinous attacks on civilians and American targets, is a “veritable arm of Pakistani ISI.”

Fast-forward a decade, and current members of Congress are pressing Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Pakistan’s role in the American defeat in Afghanistan. “Is, your understanding that, over the past 20 years, the United States taxpayers have paid Pakistan who was then use that money to support the Taliban, Haqqani network, ISIS-K… for the past twenty years?” Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry asked Blinken during a Congressional hearing Monday.

The concern was bipartisan. “We will have other hearings to develop a set of lessons learned over the course of the war, to understand the many mistakes made over the course of 20 years… the double dealing by Pakistan in providing a safe haven to the Taliban,” said Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez during day two of the hearings.

Former President Donald Trump went as far as to cut off aid to Pakistan in 2018 for its support for terrorism, but generally speaking, the spigot has continually flower for two decades, with the U.S. pumping billions of dollars into Islamabad while they turned around and propped up a terrorist organization killing Americans.

It’s possible Pakistan will now have less leverage over both the U.S. and the Taliban going forward, according to some experts. With the U.S. ceasing on-the-ground military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan will no longer play such a key role in logistical support for U.S. troops. Meanwhile, having gained control of Kabul and warming up to major powers like Russia and China, the Taliban won’t be as reliant on Islamabad for cash and military aid that can be provided in far greater quantities by Beijing and Moscow. (RELATED: ‘Our Most Important Partner’: China To Fund Taliban, Group Spokesman Reportedly Says)

“The very fact that the Taliban will be relatively less acceptable to the rest of the world makes them more dependent on Pakistan. That said, the Taliban are unlikely to listen to Pakistan on every issue,” said Haqqani. “They do have a belief system, and the way they see it, they fought for God, not for Pakistan. So therefore, they will do what they like, and Pakistan may end up being caught in the middle once again.”

As far as the Biden administration goes, though, there are no signs that sanctions or other punishments are coming to Pakistani leadership for its role in America’s embarrassing debacle in Kabul. Blinken has referred to positive cooperation with Pakistan multiple times in recent days, and nobody from the administration has proposed punishing Pakistan, despite some experts calling for exactly that move to be made. (RELATED: Biden’s NSC Assures The Public: The Taliban Is Being Super ‘Cooperative,’ You Guys)

“Eventually, the U.S. will have to figure out how to punish Pakistan, rather than just try to coax and win over Pakistan,” one former official, who chose to remain anonymous in order to speak freely, told the Daily Caller. “The U.S. never put Pakistan on the state sponsors of terrorism list, never put any of Pakistan’s senior officials on the supporters of terrorism list… if things like that happened, that might stir Pakistan in a different direction.”

“Otherwise, Pakistanis are quite used to being lectured by the Americans,” they added. “And those lectures aren’t going to cut it.”