Islamabad plays a crucial role in advancing mediation efforts between the Taliban and Washington, positioning itself as a powerful bargaining force in the future of Afghanistan.
As the talks between Washington and the Taliban have increased the possibility of a settlement in the Afghan conflict, behind the scenes, Pakistan, a state which has crucial ethnic and cultural ties with Afghanistan, has played a critical role in bringing the Taliban to the table.
“Pakistan has been very consistent about the Taliban. Right after September 11, Pakistan kept telling Americans that there is a difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. We must talk to the Taliban,” said Kamal Alam, a military analyst.
Before the September 11 attacks, the Taliban was the ruling power in Kabul. In order to go after Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, who was based in Afghanistan, and harboured by the Taliban leadership, Washington went to war with Kabul in 2001.
The US military eventually overthrew the Taliban-led government, replacing it with a pro-Western alliance of political powers, which have not been on friendly terms with Pakistan.
“In 2001, there was the Bonn conference, which brought Hamid Karzai to the government, even then, they wanted the Taliban talks to happen. When Karzai was the president, he wanted to talk to the Taliban, but the Americans did not allow him,” Alam told TRT World.
But nearly two decades later, Washington appears to be bogged down in a civil war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban controls much of the country. In the face of a growing Taliban reality on the ground, US President Donald Trump currently seeks a quick exit from the conflict.
Now, Washington appears to recognise the validity of Pakistan’s Taliban argument, getting closer to a deal with the group’s leaders.
Pakistan has long said that the Taliban is different from international terrorism and the group should be part of the Afghan dialogue, according to Alam.
“Americans have finally agreed to this. Not because Americans like the Taliban, but because they are stuck after 19 years of failure,” Alam underlined.
After a disputed election, the two contenders — the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, an influential Tajik-origin politician — are jostling for power, both claiming the Afghan presidency.
“After all these strategic failures, Americans are saying, ‘Right, let’s talk to the Taliban.’ And Pakistan is bringing the Taliban to the table in Doha [the capital of Qatar, where the talks have been held],” Alam said.
Pakistan: the main actor in the Taliban talks
Alam definitely thinks that Pakistan is “the main actor” in the ongoing Taliban talks because “key people” participating in the negotiations are “under the influence of Pakistan”.
Some of the exiled Taliban leaders have allegedly lived in Pakistan since the US occupation of Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban talks, Pakistan quietly released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the co-founders of the Taliban, who joined the Doha talks right after his exit from a Karachi prison.
While Pakistan has much more influence over the Taliban than any other regional states, Iran and Russia also support the group, Azam says.
As a result, Pakistan wants to make sure that if the Taliban deal comes into force and the Americans leave Afghanistan, Washington does not have to drop all its problems on Pakistan’s door, according to Alam.
“That’s what happened in 1989” after the Soviets departed Afghanistan in defeat and Pakistanis do not want to have another repeat of history, Alam says.
“Pakistanis have done their job and now the job is an Afghan job, which is the intra Afghan dialogue. The Taliban needs to sit with Ashraf Ghani or Dr Abdullah. Now it’s up to the Afghans. Pakistan can not do anymore,” Alam said.
The supposed agreement will create a political mechanism in which the US military will withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange to the Taliban promise that the group will not harbour any terrorist organisation which aims to attack the West.
As the US military begins withdrawing from Afghanistan, the intra-Afghan talks will be launched to address the country’s long conflict between the Taliban and Kabul, the deal proposes.
What’s actually happening on the ground?
While the Taliban and the US negotiate a deal to end their respective hostilities, the situation on the ground has not improved much.
“This is just for Trump to declare a victory and say that ‘I ended the Afghan war. There has been a peace deal’,” Alam said.
“[But] the situation on the ground is very bad. The Taliban will continue to fight. Probably they want the whole country. And Ashraf Ghani and all other politicians want to remain in power.”
If the Taliban takes over the whole country, it might also have an impact on Pakistan.
“I don’t think it’s in Pakistan’s interest for the Taliban to rule the whole country,” Alam added, citing different factors from changing times from the 1990s to 2010s, to the rise of international terrorism, economic sanctions, the relationship with Iran and Pakistan’s worsening relations with India.