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Have the Afghan Taliban Chewed through Pakistan’s Leash?

By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam

19 March 2016

The chaos following Shahbaz Taseer's miraculous escape from captivity in Afghanistan flags a serious communication breakdown between Islamabad and its instruments of statecraft. Moreover, it spotlights the increasing futility of using the term "Afghan Taliban" to represent some centralized militant umbrella as such a top-down model became obsolete after the US troop surge in 2010.

The fact that Afghan insurgents of late have begun moving in contradiction to Islamabad's geopolitical interests suggests the latter either oversells its influence over the current Taliban leadership, or that shifting power dynamics within the group have marginalized its pro-Pakistan elements.

The Afghan Taliban's newfound rebel-mindedness is also alarming for Islamabad in view of Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz's recent, candid admission at a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) talk. On March1, Aziz gave the first ever confirmation by a state official that senior Afghan Taliban leaders were living in Pakistan with Islamabad's blessings.

"We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say, come to the table," Aziz told CFR. This disclosure did not surprise anyone in Washington, or indeed an Obama White House that has long suspected Islamabad of keeping pliant Taliban factions under its thumb to counter India in Afghanistan.

Aziz also displayed confidence that two-way talks between Kabul and the Taliban could restart in a matter of weeks and there was undoubtedly reason to be optimistic. Islamabad's historical ties to the militants going back to Mullah Omar's heyday have made all regional stakeholders’ acknowledge its pivotal role in closing the insurgency.

This clear-eyed confession, however, tore off Islamabad's veneer of "plausible deniability" apropos the Afghan Taliban, something it had hung on to fiercely after the 2001 invasion and often invoked to parry accusations of duplicity. It was now open-season for international partners to score Islamabad's influence on the militants based on how they reacted to proposals of detente.

The Afghan Taliban, for their part, showed scant interest in either playing ball or helping Islamabad save face by outright rejecting participation in future peace talks until their oft-stated preconditions-including the release of partisans in Guantanamo Bay-were met. "We reject all such rumours and unequivocally state that the esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting," read a March 5 statement on the group's website.

To drive this point home, militants hit two Afghan law enforcement targets in Helmand province four days later, leaving three police officers dead. Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Institute rationalizes: "The Taliban have little incentive to step off the battlefield now, given recent gains and those likely to come in the next few months. Why quit while you're ahead?"

Islamabad's response to Taseer's recovery also bordered on the farcical

Anwar-ul-Haq, official spokesperson for the Balochistan government, first broke news of Taseer's reappearance in the border town of Kuchlak on March 8, claiming an army-led operation had freed him from the militants. This caught Interior Minister Ch. Nisar Ali flatfooted and he immediately ordered a probe to fact-check Haq's statement.

It bears remembering here that Nisar, like most Pakistani politicians, is painfully aware of the army's penchant for springing unpleasant surprises that his ilk end up answering for. Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad within spitting distance of the Kakul military academy comes to mind.

Much to Quetta's surprise, Nisar's team concluded that Taseer "was not released through an operation by security forces, but set free by the captors," probably after money changed hands. This confounded Fazlullah Kakar, a provincial government official, who countered "We don't know why the interior ministry is saying he was released by the kidnappers. We stand by our official statement that an operation was carried out by security forces."

Meanwhile, Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Pakistani journalist famous for his inside links and encyclopaedic knowledge of the Taliban, posited that militants happened upon Taseer in Zabul last November after routing his captors from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). They subsequently gave Taseer some cash and sent him on his merry way back to Pakistan on a motorcycle. Compelling story, but here too the Afghan Taliban played spoilsport.

The same day as Yousafzai’s play-by-play write-up in a local daily, veteran Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid rubbished news of Taseer's rescue by his men, clarifying "We are unaware of the incident. We had neither held him, nor recovered him." When pressed to comment on reports that some Taliban had claimed as much, Mujahid retorted "This is baseless. We have not issued any statement as the issue does not relate to us."

The real question is why someone in Islamabad or General Headquarters did not just pick up the phone and quickly get a handle on the situation? Do they not know who to call anymore? The Afghan Taliban, as Aziz admits, have long been trusty pieces in Islamabad's toolkit to maintain influence west of the Durand Line and Washington will without a doubt expect Islamabad to corral client militants towards a peace settlement. Is that even possible considering recent events? Highly suspect.

S. Mubashir Noor is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan