US digging deep into Pakistan’s dual Afghan role

A US Senate bill tabled to assess Pakistan’s “dual” role in the Taliban’s lightning takeover in Afghanistan has Pakistan-US ties hanging in a new delicate balance. Even if the bill which could result in punitive sanctions is not passed, relations will remain mired in uncertainty, mistrust and contention for the foreseeable future.

Bilateral ties have deteriorated despite the fact the instrumental role Pakistan played in facilitating the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that the US continues to “scapegoat” Pakistan for its own failures in prosecuting the “war on terror.” He wrote that Pakistan’s collaboration with the US from 2006-15 resulted in 16,000 terrorist attacks on the Pakistani state, 80,000 casualties and US$150 billion in economic losses.  

Khan’s assertion, of course, overlooks the long-time double game Pakistan has played with the US, including in providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. More recently Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is widely believed to have provided the Taliban strategic and logistical advice as it swept to fill the vacuum left by retreating US troops.

There is also widespread speculation that thousands of Pakistani security personnel, garbed as Taliban fighters, may have helped the militant group on the ground during its final push to seize Kabul. It’s a speculation that the US Senate is expected to weigh in the weeks ahead, one that could lead to damaging new revelations.

Setting a tone, former US national security advisor H R McMaster told a US congressional hearing this week that Pakistan has “had it both ways” for too long and that the US should stop providing assistance to Islamabad in punitive response. “I think Pakistan should be confronted with its behavior over the years that has actually resulted, I think, in large measure in this outcome,” McMaster said, according to press reports.

McMaster told US lawmakers that the Taliban was backed by ISI and that’s why they recaptured Afghanistan. He also said that the US should hold Khan accountable for some of his comments after the fall of Kabul in August and that Pakistan should be confronted broadly with international isolation because of its “support for jihadist terrorists.”

To be sure, civilian and military Pakistani leaders desire strong relations with the US. Many had hoped, so far vainly, for a bilateral reset after US President Joe Biden took power in January from the outgoing Donald Trump.