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The Key Role Pakistan Is Playing In U.S.-Taliban Talks

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan meets U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) in Islamabad on Aug. 1. Khalilzad met Khan ahead of peace talks in Qatar with the Taliban.
Press Information Department via AP
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan meets U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) in Islamabad on Aug. 1. Khalilzad met Khan ahead of peace talks in Qatar with the Taliban.

A bomb parked under the preacher's pulpit in a mosque likely had a high-profile target: a brother of the Taliban leader. It was seen by the Taliban as a warning to stop their talks with the United States.

The bombing, on Aug. 16, was in Pakistan — on the outskirts of the garrison town of Quetta, near the Afghan border. And its location spotlighted something else: the powerful and uneasy place of Pakistan in these negotiations. Quetta is widely understood to be the base of Afghanistan's Taliban leadership.

Critics have long contended that Pakistan has held some sway over the Taliban by offering them shelter, if not outright support.


Now the country is facilitating negotiations between Washington and the Taliban that will likely see a withdrawal of most foreign troops, in return for the insurgents' promise they won't let Afghanistan be a launchpad for future global terrorist attacks.

Taliban officials have said they are close to finalizing an agreement. That is echoed by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who tweeted before a ninth round of talks ended last weekend that his team would "try and close on remaining issues." After this agreement, the Afghan government and Taliban will have their own talks — something the Taliban have yet to agree to, because they see the government as illegitimate.

Analysts say Pakistan is also using these negotiations to try assert its own interests in Afghanistan, by pushing for the Taliban to have an outsize political role in Kabul once foreign forces leave.

"Pakistan is very aware of its strategic importance here," said Madiha Afzal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.

Pakistan may also be trying to leverage its role to press for foreign intervention in its conflict with India over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, something India rejects.


India scaled back autonomy of the parts of Kashmir it controls in early August. That triggered renewed tensions with Pakistan, which fears the move could weaken its own claim to the territory. Pakistani officials have since warned they may redeploy forces from the country's western border with Afghanistan to the eastern border with India.

"We have limited capacity," said Abdul Basit, a retired Pakistani diplomat and president of the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies in Islamabad. "The West, and U.S., should use its influence on India not to create any more problems on our eastern border. That will inevitably create more problems and divert our attention from U.S.-Taliban efforts."

To assist U.S.-Taliban negotiations when they began last year, Pakistan quietly released the co-founder of the Taliban from a Karachi prison. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has since become the Taliban's deputy political leader and chief negotiator.

At the request of President Trump in December, Pakistani officials prodded the insurgents to take negotiations more seriously after the talks appeared to falter, just months after Trump appointed Khalilzad to lead negotiations.

In June, the Pakistani foreign minister hosted Afghan opposition leaders, and Prime Minister Imran Khan hosted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Following a meeting with Trump in Washington last month, Khan said he would host Taliban leaders in Islamabad.

Khan's July 22 White House meeting marked a striking turnaround in Pakistan's recent fortunes. "I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves," Trump said during a joint press conference.

The country's relationship with Washington had earlier unraveled, as President Trump suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and lashed out several times on Twitter, accusing Pakistan of harboring militants the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.

But the extent of Pakistan's sway over the Taliban is unclear, said Stephen Tankel, an associate professor at the American University School of International Service and author of With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.

Pakistan has "long since made a practice of simultaneously trying to downplay their support for the Taliban, while simultaneously trying to argue that any deal with the Taliban has to go through them," he said. "And judging by Imran Khan's reception at the White House, it certainly seems that at least some in the Trump administration have embraced that sense that Pakistan is critical to any deal."

Basit, the retired diplomat, said those expectations were worrying. "We may have some leverage," he said, "but to say that Pakistan should be responsible for a modus vivendi — that would not be fair."

What Pakistan seeks from its involvement in negotiations is stability across the border in Afghanistan and an Afghan government that includes the Taliban, said Shahid Latif, a retired Pakistani air vice marshal.

While some may play down Pakistan's influence over the Taliban, Latif laid out the country's expectations, role and preferences in stark terms.

"Pakistan is supporting Taliban," Latif said, to be part of the regular politics of Afghanistan. "They should be the part of the government," he said. "The formula, different options can be worked out, how much of the participation do they need" — all that could be negotiated between the Taliban and Pakistan beforehand, he said.

"We need to talk to Taliban, reach an amicable solution with them and then, based on practicality of that solution, we should approach the Americans," Latif said, referring to the Pakistani government and military.

Reaching an "amicable solution" seems reasonable to Pakistani officials, who see the insurgents as likely to represent their interests — and to be hostile to overtures from India. Western-backed politicians in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani, are seen by Pakistan as friendly to India, Latif said. That makes Pakistan uncomfortable.

"Any [Afghan] government that is dependent on India, and that is linked with India, will certain[ly] not have any good feelings for Pakistan, so that, obviously [is] unacceptable," Latif said. "We do not mean that there should be a government which should create enmity with India, but at the same time, it should not send a negative signal to Pakistan."

Pakistan will most likely push to delay Afghan presidential elections — set for Sept. 28 — and push for a power-sharing agreement, said Basit. "If elections are held and we have a new [Afghan] president, that will further complicate the situation on the ground," Basit explained. The "next step," he suggested, would be to "postpone elections and come up with a national unity government."

That sort of outcome is keenly feared by many Afghans, who have long resented Pakistan's involvement in their country's affairs — particularly its support for the Taliban. Afghans fear the current negotiations will embolden the Taliban to crush their fragile democracy and seize power at a time when the country's security will be vulnerable due to the withdrawal of foreign forces.

"A best-case scenario would be an undemocratic return of the Taliban to the political realm," wrote Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in a CNN op-ed. "If Taliban rule in their current areas of influence is any indication, it could also mean severe regressions on individual rights. The worst-case scenario would be a return to civil war and chaos."

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