Pakistan remains obstacle to lasting peace with the Taliban

Pakistan remains obstacle to lasting peace with the Taliban

As long as Pakistan continues to offer sanctuary to the Taliban, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan will likely remain remote

Let’s be frank, the primary obstacle to a lasting peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan is Pakistan; specifically, the Pakistani establishment’s support of the Taliban insurgency.

The role of ‘spoilers’ has been well documented in war-termination literature. Every peace process creates losers along with winners, and spoilers often derail (or resist) cooperative measures and peace.

Examining the Afghan civil war, several analysts, such as Matt Waldman and Seth Jones, have focused on Pakistan’s role as spoiler—financier and supporter of, even providing sanctuary to, the Taliban—as a deliberate means to keep Afghanistan weak. I have argued elsewhere that Pakistan is a ‘greedy and total spoiler’. In similar vein, other observers such as The Economist’s James Astill and Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic have labelled Pakistan ‘duplicitous’ and an ‘ally from hell’.

War-termination and counterinsurgency theories suggest that if you starve the Taliban insurgency of its sources of (external) support then Taliban leaders will be forced to come to the negotiation table without demanding preconditions. Successful counterinsurgency generally relies on smothering an insurgency within a closed environment.


Pakistan has long posed a conundrum for the campaign in Afghanistan by offering sanctuary to Afghan insurgent leaders and fighters. The access those sanctuaries provide to recruiting, financing, training and leadership direction grossly complicates the campaign in Afghanistan, making it far more difficult to deprive the insurgency of the ‘oxygen’ lifelines it needs.

The efforts of the newly created Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China will result in little unless they are able to pressure Pakistan into disavowing the Taliban. To date, however, the West has been unwilling to compel, preferring benign capacity building to coercive diplomacy with Islamabad. This was exemplified best by the United Kingdom, which preferred law enforcement cooperation with Pakistan following the July 2005 bombings in London. Similarly, in the United States, and following the December 2015 San Bernardino shootings, authorities are reluctant to jeopardise law enforcement relations with their Pakistani counterparts by pressuring Pakistan too much.

Thus the West has shown little inclination to increase the pressure on Pakistan despite mounting evidence of radicalisation in Pakistan. The Taliban meanwhile, has reiterated its preconditions for peace talks, saying ‘unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results’.

Pakistan’s own imperatives lie elsewhere. Since 2001, the influx of external actors has undercut Pakistan’s hitherto doctrine of strategic depth. The doctrine sought to deny Afghanistan’s political independence, and is intended to constrain Kabul’s foreign relations and economic freedom in order to necessitate its near total dependence on Pakistan. This strategy licenses Islamabad to exploit Afghanistan’s sovereignty by attempting to monopolise control over its neighbour’s political, security and economic levers of policy making. For instance, Pakistan’s call to establish an inclusive government in Kabul intends to give the Taliban political legitimacy, and hence ownership in a future Afghan government.


Pakistan’s motives for supporting the Taliban are complex. Under Pakistan’s patronage, Afghanistan became a hub for religious and political extremism. Pakistan’s policy objective in Afghanistan—a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul which would sway to Pakistan’s wishes; the so-called ‘creeping invasion’ of Afghanistan—was designed to keep the Afghan state necessarily weak. A weak state, it was assumed, governed not by a legitimate sovereign, but rather by warlords and militias, would not be able to challenge and unsettle Pakistan’s long-term strategic objectives.

Commenting on Pakistan’s role in fuelling insecurity and instability within Afghanistan, several Afghan political and security insiders I have spoken with have stated that Afghanistan has been in a ‘state of war with Pakistan’. Other analysts note that Pakistan has fought three undeclared wars with Afghanistan since 1980. Thus the same insiders view Pakistani overtures at offering to broker peace with the Taliban with great suspicion.

Recently, a top Pakistani diplomat, Sartaj Aziz, not known for his candour, admitted (perhaps unwittingly) that the country supports members of the Taliban and provides them sanctuary within Pakistani territory. Such an admission is not new. In 2007, the then Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, admitted so. The Pakistani diplomat and one-time ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, too, has been critical of Pakistan’s policy of providing sanctuary to the Taliban.

To be clear, Aziz was not offering a critique or indictment of Pakistani foreign policy or of the military establishment. Instead, he sought to stress the Pakistani role in the negotiations with the Taliban, and emphasised that Pakistan was able to wield influence over the Taliban because their leadership ‘is in Pakistan’. Interestingly, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry distanced itself from Aziz’s comments with a spokesperson saying, ‘we do not make any comment on [political leaders’ statements]’.

Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is content to let groups wreak havoc in the region with the understanding that these groups will not act against the Pakistani state

Some have claimed that Islamabad has abandoned its support for militant groups. Yes, the Pakistani military has been acting against domestic militant and sectarian groups, particularly the Pakistan Taliban or TTP, and Lashkar-e Jhangvi or LeJ. This, however, does not imply a change in Pakistani foreign policy towards groups that act against external entities. Pakistan’s counterterrorism doctrine is geared towards countering extremism within its own territory only, and not regionally.

Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is content to let groups wreak havoc in the region with the understanding that these groups will not act against the Pakistani state. As The Economist reported in 2014, there is a long-standing ‘ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) policy of fighting only those seeking to topple the Pakistani state while tolerating or even supporting groups on Pakistani soil that restrict their violence to Afghanistan and India’.

Worse yet, and commenting on Pakistan’s kinetic operations, Afghan leaders have alleged that Pakistan is intentionally pushing militant groups into Afghan territory. They call the timing of kinetic operations suspect and question why Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e Azb in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas only after Western troops had ended their combat role in Afghanistan.

It would be a mistake to see sanctuaries as the sole factor contributing to the conflicts in Afghanistan. Poor governance, endemic corruption, and a failing economy have contributed to the erosion in the Afghan government’s legitimacy. As Afghanistan expert William Maley has noted, poor governmental performance disinclines local Afghan actors from taking a prominent role in confronting anti-regime forces.

Yet sanctuaries contribute to the failure to coerce the Taliban to the negotiating table. Sanctuaries provide the Taliban with strong bargaining power. It is highly unlikely that the Taliban will countenance negotiations and peace talks from a position of strength.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons

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