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Pakistani Support Base Bolsters Taliban As U.S. Exits

Supporters of pro-Taliban Pakistani religious Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Nazryate party rally to celebrate the signing agreement between United States and Taliban in Quetta Balochistan in March 2020.
Supporters of pro-Taliban Pakistani religious Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Nazryate party rally to celebrate the signing agreement between United States and Taliban in Quetta Balochistan in March 2020.

Hafiz Naimatullah had his life ahead of him. Earlier this year he got married, and his conservative family had sent him to an Islamic school in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan to study as a mullah or Muslim cleric.

Instead, the 21-year-old died fighting for the Taliban in the southeastern Afghan province of Ghazni last month.

“Senior clerics and Islamic scholars will talk about the glory and benefits of jihad,” read a poster inviting friends and clerics to a memorial for him. “The melodious vocalist of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will offer jihadist chants [during the ceremony],” the poster added while referring to the Afghan Taliban by its formal name.

“His father did not mourn,” a cleric close to the Afghan Taliban in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, told Radio Mashaal of Naimatullah’s family. “He insisted on being congratulated because Naimatullah is not dead. Martyrs never die,” he added. Naimtuallah became the fourth male member of his extended family to die during the various phases of war in Afghanistan since the early 1980s.

Networks Of Support

The cleric, who requested anonymity because of possible reprisals from Pakistani authorities, said dozens of Pakistani volunteers have been killed in Afghanistan this spring as the Afghan Taliban tries to overrun rural Afghan provinces in the midst of the U.S. withdrawal.

“Fighting has been more intense than anytime during the past 20 years,” he said. The Taliban’s hard-line regime was toppled by a U.S.-led military attack following the events of September 11, 2001. “There is fighting in virtually every district of Afghanistan,” he added.

Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are divided into some 400 districts. Since March, the Taliban has seized more than four dozen districts. The group now controls as much territory as the Afghan government, which still holds on to provincial capitals and major population centers.

The death toll of Pakistani volunteers fighting for the Taliban highlights a sticking point of the Afghan conflict. Senior Afghan officials have long maintained the war in their country is stoked by “undeclared hostilities” with Pakistan, whose military and intelligence services allegedly use Islamist guerrillas to topple governments and political systems in neighboring Afghanistan.

A poster inviting friends and clerics to a memorial for Hafiz Naimatullah, a Pakistani fighter killed while fighting for the Afghan Taliban.
A poster inviting friends and clerics to a memorial for Hafiz Naimatullah, a Pakistani fighter killed while fighting for the Afghan Taliban.

While senior Pakistani officials deny supporting the Afghan Taliban and recently joined the United States, Russia, and China in formally opposing a return of the group’s Islamic Emirate, it has done little to uproot the Taliban’s support network on its own soil.

The former top leader of the Taliban was killed in Balochistan in 2016, and several other senior figures -- including the movement’s current deputy leader and top negotiator, Abdul Ghani Baradar -- have been incarcerated in Pakistan. Yet Islamabad has not targeted the Afghan Taliban as it did factions of the Pakistani Taliban, who were forced to surrender or flee after large-scale military operations.

As the United States withdraws its last troops from Afghanistan, Islamabad’s role in shaping Kabul’s future is pivotal once more. Pakistan is doing little to hamper the Taliban’s military machine, which has thrived thanks to Pakistani sanctuaries and support. Western diplomatic attempts to cultivate a cooperative relationship between the neighboring countries have run aground on deep-rooted mutual mistrust and recrimination.

Uninterrupted Taliban War Effort

On the ground in Pakistan, the Taliban war effort progresses unimpeded. Police reports from Balochistan’s northern regions along the border with Afghanistan indicate that while authorities are aware of Pakistanis being killed fighting for the Afghan Taliban, they are making no effort to stop them.

“A memorial was held to remember Shamsullah who was martyred in Kandahar Province on March 10,” one report obtained by Radio Mashaal noted about an event held in Killi Zarifabad, near Quetta. Two other entries reported similar memorials for men by the names of Sanaullah and Rozi Khan. Both were killed in Maruf, a rural district of Kandahar.

Radio Mashaal independently verified the details of the memorial services and the fallen Taliban fighters mentioned in this story.

In Balochistan and the neighboring northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, social media posts and announcements advertising memorial services for Pakistani members of the Taliban are common. “The funeral for Sayed Badruddin, who was martyred in Afghanistan, will be offered in Killi Gangalzai,” a poster circulated on WhatsApp in early June said of one memorial held in the agricultural district of Pishin near the Afghan border.

Pakistani authorities have done little to prevent donations to the Afghan Taliban. Apart from targeting individual leaders occasionally during the past two decades, they’ve avoided a crackdown. Afghan and U.S. officials have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Pakistani authorities to deny the Afghan Taliban its sanctuaries, which enabled the group to make a comeback. In Balochistan, some observers say the sanctuaries and support networks are part of Islamabad’s longstanding efforts to shape the political system in Afghanistan.

Balochistan Home Minister Mir Ziaullah Langove says he has not seen any reports of Pakistani volunteers being repatriated for burial or the Taliban raising funds in his province. “No one has reported this, and we have not arrested anyone,” he told Radio Mashaal. “I have no information of anything like it happening here.”

Members of the Taliban, however, are not difficult to find. One journalist who requested anonymity because of possible Taliban reprisals said he has personally witnessed how the Taliban support network works in Pishin. He told Mashaal that last month he attended the funeral of a Taliban volunteer in Pishin’s Hakalzi village.

“It was a strange affair because relatives of the bereaved father were congratulating him for his son’s martyrdom,” he said of the “fatiha,” a common custom in which relatives and family friends offer condolences and prayers for the deceased. “Clerics were trying to encourage other relatives to follow his path.”

The journalist, who frequently visits Pishin, said groups of supporters solicit donations for the Taliban war chest at Pishin’s main bazaar. “During Ramadan, I saw the Taliban collecting donations inside the mosque where I was praying,” he told Radio Mashaal.

He said Taliban fighters move freely across Pakistan’s fenced border with Afghanistan. “On three or four days each week, you can see Taliban fighters on motorcycles crossing into Kandahar Province from Barshoor,” he said. “The Taliban mostly cross the fence at night, whereas civilians are not allowed.”

Langove, however, denied Taliban fighters are crossing into Afghanistan from Balochistan. He said the security forces are on high alert because of Balochistan’s 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan. “We are fencing this border to regulate all cross-border movement,” he said. “Now we cannot guarantee that we know about all movement across this border. But once the fence is complete, we will see a dramatic drop in all illegal crossings.”

Since 2017, Islamabad has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on fencing the more than 2,500 kilometers of its disputed border with Afghanistan to prevent fugitive members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella alliance of Pakistani Taliban factions, and other groups from crossing the once-porous border. But the fence has done little to impede either the TTP or the Afghan Taliban in crossing the Durand Line, as the border is called after the 19th-century British official who first demarcated it with an Afghan king.

Warring Neighbors

As Kabul prepares to fend off a barrage of Taliban attacks, addressing Pakistan’s sanctuaries and support for the hard-line group is high on the Afghan agenda.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently declared that the question of war and peace in Afghanistan is now in the hands of Pakistan.

“Pakistan operates an organized system of support. The Taliban receive logistics there, their finances are there and recruitment is there,” he told German Magazine Der Spiegel recently. “The names of the various decision-making bodies of the Taliban are Quetta Shura, Miramshah (Miran Shah) Shura and Peshawar Shura -- named after the Pakistani cities where they are located,” he added. “There is a deep relationship with the state.”

His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, agrees. “Pakistan wants to exert strategic influence in Afghanistan through the Taliban,” he told Der Spiegel. He went on to describe the current fighting across Afghanistan as a “Pakistani offensive” that is unlikely to succeed because as the expereince of the imperial Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States have shown, it was difficult to dominate his country from the outside. “My appeal to Pakistan is: Let's be reasonable. Let's start a civilized relationship between our two countries,” he noted.

But Pakistani officials have strongly countered such allegations. On June 14, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistani foreign minister, warned Afghan leaders that his country will not take the blame for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

“If the objective of going to Washington is starting a new blame game and holding Pakistan responsible for all the ills [in Afghanistan] and the lack of [progress in the peace] process, then it will not help,” he said of Ghani’s expected trip to Washington later this month. "It is a shared responsibility, and nobody is going to buy it anymore that if things go wrong [then] Pakistan is responsible.”

While an American ally, Pakistan opposed the government in Kabul and accused it of colluding with arch-rival India to undermine its stability and territorial integrity. Past Pakistani rulers have argued that this justifies their support for the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders shelter across Pakistan while fighters use the country’s Pashtun border region to wage a growing insurgency that has overrun large swathes of territories after 2014.

Pakistani officials point to the fallout of Afghanistan’s conflict and its impact on their country as evidence of their sincerity in backing the Afghan peace process, emphasizing Islamabad’s role in brokering the February 2020 agreement between Washington and the Taliban.

In March, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said his country wants to establish lasting peace within and with its neighbors based on “noninterference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighboring and regional countries.”

But independent observers remain skeptical. Barnett Rubin, a senior former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that over the years senior U.S. officials have consistently engaged with Pakistan on the issue of Taliban sanctuaries but it failed to deliver the desired results for Washington and Kabul.

“There were limits on the extent to which the U.S. could pressure Pakistan as it depended on it for its logistics into Afghanistan,” he told Gandhara. “Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan since it is a nuclear power.”

Rubin says that contrary to Afghan perceptions Islamabad is not pushing for an outright Taliban victory as this would encourage the TTP and other anti-government militants in Pakistan.

“A re-established Islamic Emirate would give strategic depth to the TTP, not the Pakistani military,” he said. “Nonetheless, there is a constituency in the officer corps that supports a Taliban victory, especially among those who are or who have been involved in Directorate S’s Afghan Cell.,” he added, naming a secretive wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premiere spy service. “Bajwa has told interlocutors that he is not in full control of these people.”

“This may be a negotiating tactic, but may nonetheless be true, even if he exaggerates it,” he added.

Last month Bajwa accompanied General Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of the defense staff, to Kabul in an apparent bid to broker a bilateral pact between Kabul and Islamabad. “Chief of Army Staff reiterated that a peaceful Afghanistan means a peaceful region in general and a peaceful Pakistan in particular,” a statement by the Pakistani military’s media office noted on May 10. Ghani said Bajwa “clearly assured” him “that the restoration of the Emirate or dictatorship by the Taliban is not in anybody’s interest in the region, especially Pakistan.”

Little Optimism

But relations between the two countries have deteriorated since then. The Taliban has ramped up attacks, and senior Afghan and Pakistan officials have exchanged verbal attacks and accusations.

Rubin still sees some chance for a breakthrough between the two neighbors.

“If Pakistan puts intense pressure on the Taliban not to topple Kabul but instead to negotiate, and these negotiations succeed, bilateral relations will improve to the extent that it might become possible to address the many other sources of friction,” he noted. “But there will be no sudden transformation.”

In Pakistan, however, the prospects of such a breakthrough appear distant.

A surgeon in Quetta who requested anonymity because he fears both the Taliban and government told Radio Mashaal that the city’s private hospitals treat wounded Taliban fighters in large numbers.

“The code word for the Taliban wounded here is ‘panel patient’,” he said, referring to how clinics in Pakistan call patients with private insurance. “Most fighters hide their identity details. And we do not know their names,” he added. “Their monthly payments are settled by a Taliban representative.”

The doctor said fighters with serious injuries are often rushed to the southern seaport city of Karachi, a nine-hour drive from Quetta. He said the Taliban has an extensive network of hideouts on the outskirts of Quetta where the wounded rehabilitate while fighters rotating from the battlefield rest and recuperate.

“They are not really hiding, just pretending to be invisible,” he said.

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