When Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban terrorist group, walked into a meeting with top American and Pakistani officials in Islamabad last week, the masks fell off. For years, Pakistan has fed the world the fiction that it is an honest broker trying to bring peace to war-torn Afghanistan. It is in fact the principal instigator of terror there.
Islamabad’s fiction has been swallowed for years with a wink and a nudge by the US. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knows the grotesque duplicity of the Pakistani army in arming and protecting the Taliban, but long ago decided to turn a blind eye to Rawalpindi’s double game. The CIA and the Pakistani army’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) go back a long way. In 1979, at the height of the Cold War, the two spy agencies worked together to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The CIA provided funding, the ISI recruited jihadis. The joint venture lasted for 10 years till Soviet troops were forced out of Afghanistan.
The CIA and ISI have maintained close contacts through the ups and downs of the US-Pakistan relationship, especially following al-Qaeda’s 9/11 terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington. An incensed US President George W Bush phoned Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf and warned him with these famous words: “You’re either with us or against us.”
Bush followed up the warning with a threat: “If you’re not with us, we’ll bomb Pakistan into the stone age.” A cowering Musharraf promised Bush that Pakistan would stand squarely with America in its fight against al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden.
It is instructive to reflect on the terse exchange between Bush and Musharraf in mid-September 2001. The Taliban terror group that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 with medieval cruelty was driven out by the US-led NATO coalition and al-Qaeda leaders were relentlessly hunted down, including bin Laden eventually in 2011.
All the while the ISI continued to play its double game with the full knowledge and complicity of the CIA. It pretended to hunt al-Qaeda and the Taliban along with the US coalition but quietly protected their leaders, including the one-eyed Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, who lived under the ISI’s benign care in Pakistan before dying of natural causes in 2013.
The Taliban meanwhile regrouped, again with funding and weapons from the Pakistani army. Created by Rawalpindi in 1993 on Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministerial watch, the Taliban made no secret of its gratitude towards Pakistan for the safe havens it provided. It continued terror strikes across Afghanistan to destablilise first the Hamid Karzai and then the Ashraf Ghani government.
In the ascension of President Donald Trump in the US and PM Imran Khan in Pakistan, the Taliban glimpsed an opportunity. Trump was a loose cannon, a transactional leader who conducted international affairs as he would a real estate deal. The Taliban was confident it would be able to game him. Imran Khan of course was their own man, fully deserving the sobriquet “Taliban Khan”.
The Trump-Khan duet began badly but is now progressing smoothly after Khan realised that flattery was the best way to get Trump to cut a good deal. Khan and his Pakistani army handlers managed to arrange a secret meeting in the White House between Trump and senior Taliban leaders including Mullah Baradar. The Taliban, however, botched up the plan by killing an American soldier in a terror strike days before the meeting.
In Trump’s toxic world view, it’s acceptable if Afghan soldiers are killed in Taliban terror attacks. Thousands have been and continue to be. Though over 4,000 US-NATO soldiers have also died at the hands of the Taliban in the 18-year-old war, the killing of a US trooper just before his “peace” meeting with Taliban leaders in Washington drove Trump into paroxysms of anger. The meeting was abruptly cancelled even as the Taliban delegation was on its way to Washington.
The Pakistani army and the Taliban wisely waited for a month for Trump to cool down before re-establishing contacts with Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan. The meeting last week between Mullah Baradar and Khalilzad was arranged by Pakistan. This was the first time that a senior Taliban leader met with Khalilzad in Islamabad under the direct aegis of Pakistan (previous meetings were always held in Qatar), dropping all pretence of Pakistan being an honest broker.
The CIA is fully on board with this deceit. Its links with the ISI have frayed a little in recent years but remain strong. The question is: Will Trump bite the bait and agree to meet the Taliban on US soil? Under siege by CIA whistleblowers over the Ukraine-Biden scandal, Trump could look for a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from his impeachment woes.
But he may face a strong pushback from the US Congress. There is bipartisan opposition in Washington to a deal with the Taliban. Trump will be under intense pressure from his own Republican party not to re-invite Taliban leaders to the White House to cut a peace deal that amounts to conceding defeat to terrorists. The Taliban know they need to strike a deal with Trump soon. The results of the Afghanistan presidential elections are scheduled to be announced on October 19. For Afghanistan, the endgame in its troubled history is fast approaching.