The Taliban character

Published March 10, 2024
The writer is a security analyst
The writer is a security analyst

THE Afghan Taliban’s character has remained tricky throughout their history. Their leadership is notorious for shifting positions and breaking its promises. Who knows better than Pakistan’s security institutions, which have dealt with them since the beginning? However, there is more recent testimony from Saudi Arabia, which recognised their regime in the mid-1990s alongside the UAE and Pakistan, while they were in the midst of a war with their rivals.

Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, former head of the Saudi intelligence, detailed his department’s involvement in Afghanistan (1979-2001) in his book The Afghanistan File. The purpose of the publication was to clarify the Saudi position on Afghanistan — from the Afghan-Soviet war to 9/11 — as different accounts existed about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Afghanistan and nurturing of a militant brand of Islam across the world. The book also confirms many previous accounts but better explains the Saudis’ position. Some chapters are relevant to understanding the Taliban’s character, as Prince Turki provides a detailed account of Saudi efforts for Osama bin Laden’s (OBL) extradition. However, the Taliban leadership tactically manipulated the issue.

The book focuses on the Taliban’s harbouring of OBL and their link to 9/11. While Prince Turki accuses OBL of using the Pakistani militant group Harkatul Ansar’s camps, Pakistan, simultaneously demanding the return of Pakistani militants involved in sectarian killings, failed to pressure the Taliban for OBL’s extradition. The chapter culminates with Prince Turki’s descriptions of his two meetings with elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The chapter describes how Mullah Omar had shifted his position without recognising that commitments had been made in the presence of many officials and the Pakistani head of intelligence of that time Rana Naseem. The author recounts a meeting with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader in June 1998. The prince requested that OBL be handed over to Saudi Arabia. Mullah Omar expressed his willingness but felt constrained by his obligations as a host. Mullah Omar agreed to form a joint committee of ulema from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia to draft a legal judgement that would allow Mullah Omar to surrender his guest. The committee would meet within two weeks. There was an understanding that OBL would be turned in, with the committee serving as a formality.

Pak-Afghan ties won’t improve unless the Taliban fulfil their commitments.

Before the second meeting, a Taliban delegation led by Maulvi Mutawakil visited Saudi Arabia. He assured them that OBL would be swiftly expelled from Afghanistan. The delegation admitted that OBL had supporters inside Afghanistan as well as good contacts with a large number of individuals due to the financial support he had provided them. They proposed: “It would be better to examine this together and collaborate on developing a mutually beneficial solution.” In Afghanistan, they agreed to apply pressure on OBL to get him to leave the country. There is an interesting account in the book of how when OBL had declared war against the US and announced the killing of its citizens, he had cited fatwas issued by Pakistani ulema in support of his arguments. This could be the reason why the Pakistani ulema were not included in the committee.

However, the Taliban did not deliver on their promise. This forced Prince Turki to plan another meeting with Mullah Omar in September of that same year. This time, Mullah Omar denied making any agreement to hand over OBL, claiming mistranslation. He criticised Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the US and blamed them for the suffering of the Afghan and Iraqi people. The prince was offended by the outburst and cut short the meeting. Later, the new ISI chief, Gen Ziauddin Butt, informed the prince that Mullah Omar had not been in “a good mood” that day. It was a major disappointment for the prince, and was a factor that contributed to his decision to quit his position.

The Afghan Taliban seem to be playing the same game with Pakistan. Several recent media reports indicate that the interim Taliban administration in Afghanistan has once again claimed to have taken action against the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants and arrested many of them. They assert that there are no militant groups currently operating inside their country. However, Pakistan has refuted these claims and has urged the United Nations to conduct an investigation to determine how the TTP acquired advanced military equipment and weaponry and to also identify the sources of financing of the terrorist group, which is said to be supporting 50,000 fighters and their dependents, as well as its operations.

The same situation has been depicted in the Afghanistan File, but in the Saudi context:

Al Qaeda was actively involved in terrorist attacks and the Taliban were denying the Islamist group’s presence in Afghanistan with similar fervour.

Terrorist attacks are again on the rise in Pakistan, yet the TTP has only accepted responsibility for a few of these attacks. From Dec 1, 2023, to Feb 29, 2024, there were 62 attacks (51 in KP, nine in Balochistan, and two in Karachi). However, the TTP has only acknowledged responsibility for 34 attacks. This could be an attempt to show that the Afghan Taliban interim regime is putting pressure on the TTP.

The relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan cannot improve until the Taliban leadership learns how to fulfil its commitments, especially made to its close allies. One can understand why the Saudis are not enthusiastic about supporting the Taliban regime this time. Pakistan has a few more bitter experiences, as the Taliban regime is exploiting them as it indicates growing relations with India.

The major lesson for Pakistan in all this is to take the issue to parliament and have an open discussion before deciding on its future course. The Saudis had the option to curtail their relations with the Afghan Taliban. However, Pakistan does not have this option, as Afghanistan shares a crucial border in all strategic, economic, and political contexts.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2024

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