Once considered a regional spoiler, Islamabad’s influence over the Taliban has waned.
Toward the end of August, a delegation from the Afghan Taliban led by the group’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, travelled to Islamabad. There, they met with Pakistan’s foreign minister and head of its Inter-Services Intelligence, the military’s intelligence wing. The first gathering, held at Pakistan’s Foreign Office, was meant to give boost to an intra-Afghan negotiation process that has been racked by persistent delays, including over the release of Taliban inmates by Afghan authorities.
Baradar’s meetings seem to have been helpful. A Taliban negotiating team is now in Doha, Qatar, and is set to hold its first direct peace talks with representatives of the Afghan government. But in these talks, the Taliban will be led by Mullah Abdul Hakim, a hardline cleric and the Taliban’s de facto chief justice, and not Baradar, who was central to the Taliban signing a peace deal with the United States back in February. The change is part of a broader trend of Pakistan losing influence over a conflict it was once seen to script.
For years, Islamabad has maintained an uneasy relationship with Baradar, who, now in his fifties, leads the Taliban office—essentially its political arm—from Doha. Before 2018, Baradar spent eight years in Pakistani custody. His eventual release came at the behest of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who had been tasked with finding a way to get talks between the Taliban and Washington going. Deft maneuvering by both Islamabad and Washington subsequently paved the way for nine rounds of negotiations, culminating in the earlier February deal this year. That first Doha agreement provided for drawing down approximately 7,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan and the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the Taliban this August. But talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were to follow in the summer, have taken longer than expected. The coronavirus—and the public airing of internal political disagreements between Afghanistan’s political powerbrokers—have led to worries that Kabul may not have what it takes to strike, let alone sustain, a provisional power-sharing deal with the Taliban.
The absence of a credible guarantor of peace in Afghanistan is a big problem for everyone involved. For its part, the West has long believed that Pakistan could play that role but is not quite fully exercising its power. In turn, the United States frequently tried to ramp up the pressure on its erstwhile partner. A recent controversial attempt was through the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, which placed Pakistan on a grey list in 2019 for potential money laundering and terrorist financing. That designation threatens Islamabad’s ability to borrow internationally.
But on some indicators, the United States’ relationship with Pakistan has also improved. Officials in both countries are more careful about accusing each other of sabotaging regional stability. Pakistan’s commitment to regional stabilization and peace notionally underlines its pursuit of East-West connectivity, which could greatly increase Afghanistan’s trade and economic prospects. And the United States, for its part, seems to have done a volte-face on its hard-line policy towards the Haqqani Network, a group it long accused Islamabad of harboring, but which Islamabad insisted was dislocated after it officially launched counterterror operations in 2014. Indeed, many Pakistani observers find it ironic that after initially demanding that Pakistan eliminate the Haqqanis, the United States is now taking the lead in encouraging the group’s public rehabilitation.
Critically, there is also a growing understanding that Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban is waning, not least of all because of the Taliban’s internal dynamics and the group’s well-established reputation for political and financial independence. The recent elevation of Mullah Yaqub, the son of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to the role of Taliban military chief over several senior commanders, signals the rise of a new generation of leaders that did not experience the historical patronage of the Pakistani state.
That generation, and the Taliban along with it, now looks to Doha more than Islamabad as a guarantor of its interests. It has requested that Taliban inmates released by the Afghan government be sent to Qatar rather than Pakistan. And when intra-Afghan negotiations begin, it is expected that they will cycle through multiple capitals, including Doha, Oslo, and Tashkent, but not Islamabad, despite—or perhaps because of—the Baradar connection.
Indeed, unlike in the past, factors that could upend attempts at negotiating peace have relatively little to do with the extent and limits of Pakistan’s influence.
The first of these comes from within Kabul itself, where there is still a lack of unified consensus on what peace with the Taliban would look like. Inside Afghanistan, disgruntlement over the sequencing of the peace process this year—starting with February’s bilateral commitments between the United States and Taliban, which bypassed Kabul entirely—is quite public. A series of high profile but unclaimed deadly attacks in and around Kabul in recent weeks have targeted leaders associated with the U.S.-brokered process. These strikes have amplified concerns that the intra-Afghan talks could be derailed. The impression that there are serious turf wars within President Ashraf Ghani’s administration doesn’t help. Recently Ghani issued a decree appointing 46 members to the High Council for National Reconciliation. That makes the council roughly twice the size of the negotiating team it is mandated to oversee, bringing into question its viability. Former President Hamid Karzai, whose name was included in the list of appointments, has refused to be a part of the body.
A second problem comes from U.S. strategy, now wedded to President Donald Trump’s compulsion to secure an exit from Afghanistan for all but 5,000 U.S. troops in time for the presidential election in November. For many in Afghanistan and indeed in the wider region, the extent to which the United States is politically committed to guaranteeing a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban—through troops or otherwise—remains unclear. According to the Pentagon, the United States has already closed five bases in Afghanistan, and it has largely ended the use of air power, which had been a critical factor in keeping the Taliban at bay. That, combined with Trump’s frequent threats to pull all remaining troops from the country and cut aid, could embolden the Taliban.
A third issue comes from the internal structure of the Taliban and the ambiguity of its post-peace settlement ambitions. Although the new Taliban department responsible for holding intra-Afghan talks will have the authority to set agendas, decide strategy, and even sign agreements, its leadership too has oscillated, from Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, erstwhile Taliban chief negotiator, to Hakim. Its distance from the Doha-based Taliban political office led by Baradar, furthermore, raises questions about the extent of Baradar’s influence over peace talks, and the possibility that different factions may have different goalposts. At the very least, the inclusion of hardline commanders in the new negotiating team suggests that conciliation isn’t going to be easy, and that getting to the Taliban to agree to a gradual reduction in violence may be more practical than an outright ceasefire.
Fourth is the risk of regional spoilers. Washington has long suspected and accused Pakistan of maintaining an unhealthy strategic interest in the Afghan endgame without appreciating Islamabad’s concerns of threats to Pakistan emanating from Afghan soil. Observers in Islamabad, meanwhile, are worried about a different kind of spoiler that could potentially disrupt reconciliation in Afghanistan: New Delhi has historically maintained that the Taliban should not be allowed back into government. Indian officials continue to view ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban as a setback to Indian interests in the region. While India’s humanitarian and financial aid to Afghanistan makes it one of the country’s biggest aid providers, its attempts to nurture a defense and strategic relationship with Kabul make Pakistan uneasy, adding to concerns that India may be sponsoring the maintenance of militant groups within Afghanistan’s eastern provinces as a regional hedge.
Finding a way to end the war in Afghanistan is easier said than done. An eventual start to intra-Afghan talks will certainly be a reason for optimism but talks alone will be unable to guarantee peace, unless all parties recognize and address the structural impediments that continue to bedevil the endgame. And given the above risk factors, it is anything but clear that they will.