Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in the 1990s had ended up bolstering al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It was not only logistics support that the Pakistani jihadi groups were providing but also manpower that was used by both the Taliban and al Qaeda. While Pakistan’s proxies, the Taliban, were well ensconced in Afghanistan, 9/11 changed the course of history. Pakistan had to face a stark choice: as President Bush put it, ‘Either you are with us or you are against us.’

That didn’t leave Gen Musharraf much of a choice. After US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to him in the days after 9/11 Musharraf had to bite the bullet and turn against Pakistan’s protégés. Gen. Musharraf declared full support for the United States and promised cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the US launched air attacks on Taliban strongholds and by the end of 2001, the Taliban government had collapsed.

The al Qaeda and Taliban leadership found refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) while their rank and file went back to their homes in Afghanistan. As a result, FATA became a base camp for the al Qaeda and the Taliban from where they recruited, trained and launched terrorist attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

Despite what he told the US, in reality, Musharraf was not ready to jettison the thousands of home-grown guerrilla fighters – Afghans, Pakistanis and Kashmiris – who had been trained as proxy insurgent forces.

He told the then-US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, that Pakistani militants and the Kashmiri groups would be off limits in any action against terrorism. Senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban were secretly taken into protective custody and kept in safe houses. The rest were left to fend for themselves.

This duplicity, in fact started even before the US attacks in October 2001. According to Mullah Zaeef, who was the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Generals Mahmud and Jilani and Brigadier Farooq visited him in Islamabad soon after the 9/11 attacks. They told him: ‘We both know that an attack on Afghanistan from the United States of America seems more and more likely. We want to assure you that you will not be alone in this jihad against America. We will be with you.’ Zaeef responded by telling them that if America was going to attack Afghanistan, then they would know from which airports and territories it would attack Afghanistan.

Hence, Pakistan would be responsible for the bloodshed and the killing when it cooperated with America, in this world and the next. ‘You will be Afghanistan’s enemy number one,’ he warned. He also asked them: ‘Why do you want Afghans to fight the jihad? Why don’t you start it in your own country? Is jihad only an obligation for Afghans?’

According to Zaeef, Pakistan made every effort to meet with former communist generals and mujahideen commanders while the ISI facilitated contacts for the United States, introducing them to potential allies in a war against the Islamic Emirate, all for financial inducements that the US provided. At the same time, the ISI informed Mullah Omar that America’s primary goal was to kill him and the senior leadership of the Taliban, and advised him to find a safe haven.

Zaeef was scathing in his criticism of Pakistan. He noted, ‘Since the start of the jihad, the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body; every ruler of Afghanistan complained about it, but none could get rid of it.’

Then again: ‘Their [Pakistan’s] trade was people; just as with goats, the higher the price for the goat, the happier the owner. In the twenty-first century there aren’t many places left where you can still buy and sell people, but Pakistan remains a hub for this trade.’

He claimed: Pakistan is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody. They deceive the Arabs under the guise of Islamic nuclear power, saying that they are defending Islam and Islamic countries. They milk America and Europe in the alliance against terrorism, and they have been deceiving Pakistani and other Muslims around the world in the name of the Kashmiri jihad. But behind the curtain, they have been betraying everyone.

The collapse of the Taliban was bad enough for Pakistan; worse was to follow. It felt its interests were ignored in the Bonn Agreement and that ‘it was essentially an elite pact between members of the Northern Alliance and international actors, which left out parts of the Pashtun south and the concerns of Pakistan’. The refrain of the Pashtuns being ignored was to be a constant theme of Pakistan, projecting itself as their champion.

Faced with receding prospects of Afghanistan becoming dependent on it, Pakistan pursued a policy of trying to get the Taliban back in power in Kabul, either militarily, after the US left, or politically, via the back door.

From as early as 2002–03, al Qaeda and Taliban fighters started attacking US bases inside Afghanistan and then withdrawing to FATA. By 2004, active involvement of the Pakistan Army was noted when its
trucks dropped and retrieved Taliban fighters at the Afghan border. By 2005, NATO troops in Afghanistan were faced with serious attacks from the Taliban who had the full backing of Pakistan.

Bruce Riedel cites a secret NATO study, leaked in 2012, based on the interrogations of 4,000 captured Taliban, al Qaeda and other fighters in Afghanistan in over 27,000 interrogations, which held that ‘ISI support was critical to the survival and revival of the Taliban after 2001. It provides sanctuary, training camps, expertise, and help with fund raising.’ The report concluded that ‘the ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel.’

One of the key sanctuaries for the Taliban was in Balochistan, set up with the active support of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F (JUI-F) that controlled the provincial administration as well as the ISI. In fact, the election of the alliance of religious parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) into the provincial governments of the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-KPK) and Balochistan was a great boon for the Taliban and Islamists inside Pakistan. The alliance was openly sympathetic to them.

Quetta, the provincial capital, became the base of the Taliban insurgency. JUI-F support for the Taliban was frequently transparent: funeral announcements of those killed in Afghanistan were published in Balochistan newspapers; JUI-F provincial ministers attended funerals and eulogised locals who had died in Afghan battles; the party openly engaged in fundraising for the Taliban. Pakistani control over the Taliban, at least in the initial years, was almost complete.

Apart from sanctuary, Islamabad also provided the bulk of funding, making the Taliban realize that survival depended on the goodwill of Pakistan. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the ISI arrested us all in
one day,’ a former Taliban cabinet minister told Newsweek. ‘We are like sheep the Pakistanis can round up whenever they want.’

This control was borne out by the betrayal of two key Taliban leaders, Mullah Akhter Muhammad Usmani and Mullah Dadullah, to NATO. Both were killed in southern Afghanistan, in 2006 and 2007 respectively, after Pakistan came to suspect their loyalty. On another occasion, Taliban military chief Abdul Qayum Zakir and other senior commanders were picked up and released only after they gave assurances of loyalty to Islamabad’s objectives in Afghanistan. Pakistan also ensured that Quetta was off limits for US drone strikes and spies, and was never threatened either by NATO or Pakistani actions.

One element of the Pak army’s strategy was to ensure wider acceptability for the Taliban and its violence as an expression of ‘Pashtun nationalism’ motivated by the desire of freeing Afghanistan from the ‘occupation’ of US and NATO forces. According to Ahmed Rashid, a special ISI cell pushed the narrative that the extremism of the Taliban was part and parcel of Pashtun identity. To do this, they organized seminars on this theme. ‘Afghan Pashtuns such as Hamid Karzai, Abdul Haq and former
King Zahir Shah refuted this attempt but they were voices without access to the Pakistani media. Pakistani Pashtuns who opposed this labelling were dubbed traitors and anti-national by the ISI.’

This re-branding of the Taliban as ‘Pashtun nationalists’ and ‘freedom fighters, was leveraged especially with the US to negotiate with the Taliban for power-sharing in Kabul. One of the instruments used to popularize pro-Taliban narratives was Imran Khan, who could leverage his celebrity status as a cricketer.

Through electoral engineering, the army ensured that Imran Khan’s PTI formed a coalition with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in KPK in 2013. The JI’s manifesto included a promise to revive the spirit of jihad in Pakistan as part of its defence policy.

Thus, while in opposition, Imran Khan had argued that the Taliban were Pashtun ‘nationalists’ who were liberating their country from foreign occupation. He dismissed as disinformation, reports about Taliban violence such as beheading people or bombing schools. He opposed US drone strikes and asked the government of Pakistan to allow the Taliban to open offices in the country. He visited hardline Deobandi madrassas that had strong jihadi connections like Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora
Khattak and Jamia Banoria, Karachi; during his speech at the former he supported jihad in Afghanistan.

As Prime Minister, Imran Khan made several controversial remarks, especially after the Taliban victory in Kabul in August 2021, about Pashtuns and their links to the Taliban. For example, on 11 October 2021, in an interview to the Middle East Eye, a digital news organisation based in Britain he asserted, ‘The Pashtuns on this side [Pakistan] were completely sympathetic with the [Taliban] Pashtuns [in Afghanistan] – not because of the religious ideology but because of Pashtun ethnicity
and nationality, which is very strong.’

At the UN General Assembly, on 25 September 2021 too, Imran Khan had made similar remarks: ‘In Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt, where no Pakistan Army has been since our independence, they had strong sympathies with the Afghan Taliban – not because of their religious ideology but because of Pashtun nationalism, which is very strong.’ Earlier, Imran Khan had displayed his ignorance when he described the Haqqani network, as a ‘Pashtun tribe living in Afghanistan’. The consensus opinion was that these remarks bolstered the state narrative of stereotyping of Pashtuns as Taliban supporters.

Imran Khan’s comments created a furore among a cross-section of Pashtuns, who accused him of spreading misinformation and hurting their sentiments. The Awami National Party (ANP) leader Mian Iftikhar Hussain said in a statement: ‘We are Pashtuns and have never been sympathisers of terrorists and Taliban.’ According to Afrasiab Khattak, another Pashtun leader, ‘Imran Khan’s comments have added insult to injury for Pashtuns’. He added that by linking TTP violence with Pashtun ethnic sentiments, Imran Khan was trying to justify Islamabad’s support for the Afghan Taliban.

Excerpted with permission from The Pashtuns A Contested History, Tilak Devasher, HarperCollins.