Stock-taking in the US of the disastrous ending to its two-decade campaign in Afghanistan has led to questions being asked of the role played by Pakistan in the Taliban’s return to power. A group of US senators have now backed a Bill that seeks an inquiry into Pakistan’s role in the return of the Taliban, recommending sanctions for any entities that are found to have helped the group. The way events have unfolded following the Taliban takeover, including the composition of the caretaker government, which features designated terrorists, have given rise to fears of Afghanistan being used as a safe haven by terror groups. While Pakistan is seen as using its ties with the Taliban to gain strategic leverage in the region, including over India, proximity to terror actors also poses an increasingly stubborn headache for its rulers, who have to fight twin fires of terrorist activity within their borders and punitive actions internationally, as represented by its ‘grey-listing" by FATF.
What Does The US Bill Propose?
Termed the ‘Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021’, the Bill introduced in the US Senate by a group of 22 Republican senators led by Jim Risch of Idaho seeks to impose sanctions on the Taliban and any entities assisting the group. One of the senators backing the Bill says it is about “sending a clear message that the US denounces the Taliban’s human rights abuses and terrorism".
The Bill talks about slapping “sanctions on those providing support to the Taliban, including foreign governments" and envisages “a comprehensive review of foreign assistance to entities that support the Taliban". While several countries have reached out to the Taliban government, including the likes of China and Russia, Pakistan finds itself singled out in the Bill over its purported ties with the Taliban.
Amid the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the swift collapse of the country’s democratically elected government, the role of Pakistan as a Taliban backer has come under heightened scrutiny. The Bill, which calls for a report from the US Secretary of State on support “by state and non-state actors" for Taliban, specifically mentions the Pakistan government in connection with questions regarding “the provision of sanctuary space, financial support, intelligence support, logistics and medical support, training, equipping, and tactical, operational, or strategic direction" to the Taliban between 2001, when US forces invaded Afghanistan, and 2020, when the peace deal was signed between the US and the Islamist group.
Focusing more pointedly on the circumstances of the group’s return to power, the Bill also requires the US secretary of state to report on support from Pakistan to “the 2021 offensive of the Taliban that toppled" the democratically elected government. It also goes into the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, seeking information on alleged support provided by Pakistan “for the September 2021 offensive of the Taliban against the Panjshir Valley and the Afghan resistance".
How Have Ties Stood Between US-Pakistan On Afghanistan?
US’ proximity with Pakistan centred around Afghanistan developed from the time when the erstwhile Soviet Russia sent troops into the country in 1979 to back a Communist-led government. Looking to frustrate the objectives of the Soviet invasion, US found in Islamabad a willing ally that allowed use of its territory for the funneling of funds and weapons into Afghanistan to prop up the anti-Soviet resistance, led by the likes of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the dreaded Haqqani network.
After the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Islamabad suddenly found itself being called upon to assist the war against terror, which had as its primary focus the decimation of the Osama bin Laden-led al Qaeda and the ouster of the Taliban, which had harboured the group. But Pakistan had for long pursued friendly ties with the Taliban, as much for ensuring that radical insurgencies did not spill over from Afghanistan into Pakistan as to use it as a leverage against India in the geopolitical stakes in the South Asian region.
Islamabad thus provided a safe haven for Taliban leaders when they were flushed out of Afghanistan by US-led coalition troops. Also, with close ties developing between the democratically elected Afghan government and New Delhi, Pakistan sought to maintain its ties with the Taliban for the leverage it provided against India.
The killing by US special troops of Bin Laden in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad gave rise to heightened speculation regarding Islamabad’s support for terror actors even as Quetta served as the base of the Taliban’s highest decision-making body, the Rehbari, or Quetta, shura.
None of this has been lost on US lawmakers, who have noted that Islamabad’s policy posture has undermined US goals. A 2016 US Congress hearing on the question of ‘Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism?’ was told that while the US “has spent tens of billions in taxpayer dollars in the form of aid to Pakistan since 9/11, all in the hope that Pakistan would become a partner in the fight against terrorism… Pakistani military and intelligence services are still linked to terrorist groups".
Then, in his first tweet of 2018, the then US President Donald Trump lashed out at Pakistan for its “double game".
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!" he had said.
How Has Pakistan Reacted To The Sanctions Bill?
If US accuses Pakistan of betraying its trust in the war on terror, Islamabad, too, claims that it has been let down by Washington. The Pakistani establishment denies all the allegations that it has provided material, logistical and intel support to the Taliban, claiming that it delivered what it was expected to deliver, that is, the participation of the group in peace talks which, held in Qatar capital Doha, led to a signing of a peace deal that paved the way for the exit of US troops from Afghanistan.
However, Islamabad now stands accused of having fuelled a situation wherein peace talks between the democratically elected government in Kabul and the Taliban were severely compromised. The arrival in the Afghan capital of the chief of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) at a time when the Taliban were trying to thrash out a caretaker Afghan government was a conclusive proof of the influence Islamabad enjoys with the group. In fact, an interim government loaded with members of the Haqqani network, a designated terror group, is being seen as an outcome of Islamabad pulling strings with the Taliban leadership to sideline any moderate elements, who may have resisted Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs going forward.
Islamabad greeted the news of the Bill targeting it with dismay, saying that “the legislation includes references to Pakistan that are completely unwarranted". Reacting to the development, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said that Pakistan had done everything to aid US objectives in Afghanistan.
“The US is accusing us that we facilitated the Taliban but we only facilitated them to bring them to the table at the request of the US," he said. Pakistan has argued that the work of Afghan reconstruction requires the international community to stand with the Taliban now it’s in control in Afghanistan. Further, it sought to underline how it has a role to play in keeping terror groups out of the country.
“Sustained security cooperation between Pakistan and the US would remain critical in dealing with any future terrorist threat in the region. Such proposed legislative measures are, therefore, uncalled for and counterproductive,” said a statement from the Pakistan Foreign Office.
While China has emerged as a big partner for Islamabad’s economic plans, it is understandable why the threat of US sanctions would make the Pakistani establishment nervous. The US remains Pakistan’s largest trade partner and is the biggest destination for Pakistani exports. No wonder, then, that reports of the US Bill are said to have triggered a drop in the Pakistani stock market and also led to the Pakistani rupee hitting fresh lows against the US dollar.
Which Are The Terror Groups Operating In Pakistan?
A report by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) towards the end of September this year notes that US has “identified Pakistan as a base of operations and/or target for numerous armed, non-state militant groups, some of which have existed since the 1980s". However, it points out that “many observers predict a resurgence of regional terrorism and militancy in the wake of the Afghan Taliban’s August 2021 successes".
In an indictment of the Pakistani establishment, the report says, citing the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, that it has “allowed groups targeting Afghanistan… as well as groups targeting India …to operate from its territory”. Pakistani authorities, the report notes, “did not take sufficient action to stop certain terrorist groups and individuals from openly operating in the country".
The CRS report mentions 15 outfits active in Pakistan, 12 of which are US-designated terror groups. The India-focused groups comprise Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harakat-ul Jihad Islami, Harakat-ul Mujahadeen, and Hizb-ul Mujahideen, all of which have received terror designations.
The report also notes how Pakistan faces a threat domestically from an outfit like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), “composed largely of ethnic Pashtun militants" who “seek to defeat Pakistan’s government and
establish Sharia law in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa" province. Experts say part of Islamabad’s support for the Afghan Taliban can also be explained by its hope that they can help it reign in their Pakistani counterparts.
While it is not clear when, or if, the US Senate Bill will be adopted, sanctions would be a blow to Pakistan’s standing internationally apart from exerting a crippling effect on its economy. For a country already suffering the consequences of being on the Financial Action Task Force “grey list", proscriptions against receiving US foreign assistance and “miscellaneous financial and other restrictions", among others, which normally accompany any terror sanction, will push the country further into an economic morass from which it will find it hard to emerge.