Pakistan-Afghan Taliban divorce?

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In December 2018, then US President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan. The letter was unexpected given Trump’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric during the election campaign. Trump accused Pakistan of playing a double game in Afghanistan. He was critical of US administrations for doling out financial and security assistance to a country that was allegedly supporting the Afghan Taliban.

During the election campaign, Trump promised to end US foreign military campaigns including the never ending and unwinnable war in Afghanistan. When he became the President he decided to pursue his plans but certainly wanted a face-saving in Afghanistan. That was when he thought of using Pakistan’s close contacts with the Afghan Taliban to strike a deal. Senator Lindsey Graham, his close aide, played a key role in convincing him to seek Pakistan support. Graham was a great admirer of Imran Khan and supported his stance on Afghanistan that the only way forward to end the war was to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, President Trump sought Imran’s help to jump-start negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

The US knew that the only country that could bring Afghan Taliban leaders to the negotiating table was Pakistan. Pakistan accepted Trump’s offer and began efforts to bring the Taliban onto the table talk. The person who could spearhead those talks was Mullah Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban movement who had been in Pakistan’s custody. He was arrested in a joint CIA-ISI operation from Karachi when he was believed to have been secretly talking to the Karazi administration. At the request of the US, Pakistan freed Baradar and let him travel to Doha where he would hold a series of meetings with US officials before the historic Doha deal was reached.

This further cemented the perception that Pakistan indeed exercised far more influence over the Taliban than many earlier believed. That was the reason when the Afghan Taliban returned to power, there were celebrations in Pakistan. The decision-makers in Pindi and Islamabad thought this was Pakistan’s moment. A friendly government in Afghanistan that Pakistan wished for long would serve the country’s purpose well. Pakistan wasted no time and handed over a list of most wanted TTP terrorists to the new dispensation in Kabul. Islamabad more than hoped that the Afghan Taliban would either hand over its enemies to Pakistan or neutralise them.

However, the euphemism of Taliban victory would soon vanish as Pakistan began to realise that new Afghan rulers were in mood to address its concerns. Instead, the Afghan Taliban persuaded Pakistan to negotiate a peace deal with TTP. Pakistan accepted the offer. Talks made progress initially as TTP announced a ceasefire while Pakistan in return released certain militants. Later, a number of TTP men were allowed to return as part of confidence building measures. Pakistan thought the move would pave the way for a peace deal and returning militants would start a new life. However, that was a huge mistake. The appeasement policy backfired as TTP stepped up attacks against the security forces. Yet, Pakistan tried to find a way out. However, every time Pakistan raised the issue with Kabul, the Afghan Taliban simply said they would not allow Afghan soil to be used against Pakistan. On the ground that pledge made hardly any difference.

The real shift in Pakistan’s stance began when there was a change of army command. Unlike his predecessor, Army Chief General Asim Munir made it clear that Pakistan would no longer hold talks with TTP. Islamabad has hardened its stance while Kabul continued to find excuses one way or the other. Few perhaps imagined that two years after Taliban’s return to power, Pakistan and Afghanistan relationship would be at the lowest ebb. Unlike the past, Pakistan has decided to raise the cost of Afghan Taliban for supporting TTP. The move to deport Afghans residing in Pakistan illegally, introduction of ‘single document regime’ and trade restrictions is a clear message for the Afghan Taliban — no business as usual if you harbour our enemies. The jury is out if Pakistan’s punitive measures would succeed.

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