There is mounting evidence that the Pakistani government’s arrests earlier this year of high ranking Taliban leaders were not carried out with the intention of ending its support for extremism to advance its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, but were instead aimed at harpooning the secret negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
While many theories have been circulated explaining the meaning of the Taliban arrests in Pakistan, certainly the one outlined in this article is not a new theory. As the theory goes, the Pakistani government, predominantly through its military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supports the Taliban and other militant groups with logistical help, weapons and explosives training, salaries, and whatever else is required to build a militant group from scratch and to keep it going for as long as needed.
By late January of this year, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were making progress. The talks involved the Afghan government, high ranking Taliban leaders, and Kai Eide, the former UN special envoy to Afghanistan. The US and the Pakistani government were not included in the talks.
The predominant thinking in the US government in January was that pursing talks with the Taliban was premature –the Taliban had not yet been sufficiently humbled through military action. According to this rationale, if the Afghan government pursued peace talks with a defiant Taliban then the militants would be unlikely to compromise on their hardline positions. Without a humbled Taliban, you could have a peace accord doomed from the start.
It is still unclear whether Supreme Leader Mullah Omar had sanctioned the secret talks. In a mid-March BBC interview, Eide stated that he believed that Omar backed the talks. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top operational Taliban leader before his arrest, and second only to Mullah Omar, was the highest ranking Taliban leader holding the secret talks with the Afghan government.
Then abruptly, shortly after news of the secret Afghan-Taliban talks surfaced in late January, as if by coincidence, the Pakistani government arrested as many as seven top Taliban leaders including Mullah Baradar. The catch was the Who’s Who of the Taliban. Some of the arrested leaders sat on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s central leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan.
On February 22, US General David Petraeus, head of Central Command, concluded that the Pakistani government’s arrests of these leaders displayed Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terror.
Curiously, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not happy with the arrest of Mullah Baradar who, according to a Karzai advisor, was going to attend the reconciliation conference that occurred on June 2-4. More perplexing, the Pakistani government released some of these Taliban leaders shortly after their capture.
One of these released men was Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was released in 2007 and transferred to Kabul’s Pol-i-Charki jail after giving assurances to US authorities that he would not return to militancy. Zakir was freed from Pol-i-Charki in 2008. As Newsweek put it, after his release, Zakir made a “bee line” for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. Today, Zakir has replaced Mullah Baradar as the number two Taliban leader.
The release of these captured Taliban leaders is mindboggling. It is like saying that up is down and night is day. One can only imagine what people would think if the Mexican government, for example, arrested a slew of drug cartel chiefs and then released them a couple of weeks later. People would think there was collusion at the highest levels of government.
The same Newsweek report states that the Pakistani government claimed that the security forces who arrested Zakir, and released him a week or two later, did not know the significance of the man they had arrested.
Such an explanation is perplexing since Zakir was in fact arrested in the first place. What were the circumstances that got him arrested? Was it a CIA tip off? Was he found with other Taliban fighters? On what grounds was his identity unknown if the circumstances of his arrest were in any way related to a Taliban sweep?
Moreover, why were the other Taliban figures that were arrested in February and March also released? Are we to believe that the near simultaneous arrests of multiple Quetta Shura Taliban leaders (something that has never happened before and in fact up until late last year the Pakistani government denied that the Afghan Taliban was even operating on Pakistani soil) and their subsequent releases were done in error?
When one considers that the Pakistani government has a legitimate national security interest in what happens in Afghanistan, and given the Pakistan-India problem and how Afghanistan factors into that equation, and given repeated charges of ISI-Taliban collusion by the highest levels of US government, civilian experts (also here), and Taliban leaders themselves, the recent Taliban arrests and subsequent releases point not to chance or incompetence but to a well thought out foreign policy strategy that navigates through a raging storm of competing foreign policy interests.
Pakistan fears that its arch-nemesis India will gain too much influence in Afghanistan. It is also worried that the Pashtun people, who straddle both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, if left alone could push for an independent Pashtun state. The rather clever solution for Pakistan has been to co-opt the Pashtuns and use them to keep Afghanistan in Pakistan’s favor. The policy is known as “strategic depth”. Today, co-opting the Pashtuns is isolated to sponsoring the Taliban and other Pashtun insurgent factions since the rest of the Pashtuns largely support President Karzai who himself is Pashtun.
Judging from Pakistan’s Afghan strategy, it is evident that those in the Pakistani government who are pushing strategic depth do not want peace between the Taliban and the Karzai government. A peaceful Afghanistan means an Afghanistan that is also going to foster ties with India. However, such an Afghan strategy that supports militants is at odds with the United States’ mission in Afghanistan and with the aspirations of the Afghan people. It is one thing to desire to influence Afghanistan, which Pakistan has every right to do. However, Pakistan does not have the right to sponsor militants to perpetuate the war.
The Pakistani government should re-evaluate its sponsoring of the Taliban and the other militant groups that are fighting in Afghanistan. Consider that India has also worked to achieve influence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001. India’s strategy has involved developing Afghanistan’s infrastructure and India has reaped the political dividends from it. Poll after poll indicates that Afghans in general have an extremely high opinion of India (around an 80% favorability rating). In contrast, most Afghans have a very low, even hostile, opinion of Pakistan, as most Afghans believe that Pakistan is driving the insurgency.
While Pakistan may not have hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in Afghanistan, perhaps the US Congress could provide additional funding to Pakistan for this purpose. Silly as this may sound, it is worth exploring. The recent multi-billion dollar aid package that Congress approved for Pakistan could be expanded. The Pakistani government could channel this extra aid to Afghanistan and take the credit for it. Pakistan would score with the Afghan public and the resulting influence could balance India’s influence in Afghanistan without the need for fighting. If such a scenario could be realized, Pakistan might find that it makes sense to end its support for the Afghan insurgency.