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As the Taliban notches win after win, some blame Afghanistan’s neighbor: Pakistan

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stands in a doorway with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November.
(Rahmat Gul / Associated Press)

When Wahab disappeared from his home in Afghanistan to sign up for jihad, it was in neighboring Pakistan that he got his training.

The 20-year-old was recruited by childhood friends and was taken to a militant outpost in Parachinar, on Pakistan’s rugged mountainous border with Afghanistan. There, he underwent training, preparing to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban, a relative told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from militants and government security agents.

As the Taliban swiftly captures territory in Afghanistan, many Afghans blame Pakistan for the insurgents’ success, pointing to their multifaceted use of Pakistani territory. Pressure is mounting on Islamabad, which initially brought the Taliban to the negotiating table, to get them to stop the onslaught and go back to talks.

While analysts say Pakistan’s leverage is often overstated, it does permit the Taliban leadership on its territory, and its wounded fighters receive treatment in Pakistani hospitals. Their children go to school in Pakistan, and some among them own property. Some among Pakistan’s politicians have rebranded the insurgents as “the new, civilized Taliban.”

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Ismail Khan, a powerful U.S.-allied warlord who is trying to defend his territory of Herat in western Afghanistan from a Taliban onslaught, told local media recently that the war raging in his homeland was the fault of Pakistan.

“I can say openly to Afghans that this war, it isn’t between Taliban and the Afghan government. It is Pakistan’s war against the Afghan nation,” he said. “The Taliban [is] their resource and ... working as a servant.”

A breathtaking run of battlefield success has put the Taliban in the ascendant and Afghan security forces on the back foot. Can they turn it around?

Pakistan has tried unsuccessfully to convince Afghans that it doesn’t want a Taliban government ruling their country again. It says that the days of Pakistan seeing Afghanistan as a client state providing so-called “strategic depth” against its traditional adversary, India, is a thing of the past.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has told every public and private forum that Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan, has no favorites in the battle and is deeply opposed to a military takeover by the Taliban.

The country’s powerful army chief has twice walked out of meetings with the Taliban, frustrated at the group’s intransigence and infuriated by what he sees as its determination to return to full power in Afghanistan, according to senior security officials familiar with the meetings. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they had no authority to discuss the meetings.

Still, Afghans are unconvinced. Even the international community is skeptical. The United Nations last week rebuffed Pakistan’s request to address a special meeting on Afghanistan to again give its side.

The U.S. has extended refugee eligibility to more Afghans facing the danger of reprisal attacks for working with the U.S. during the 20-year war.

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The criticism is fueled by images of slain Taliban fighters being buried in Pakistan at funerals attended by hundreds waving Taliban flags. In a speech last year to lawmakers, Khan, the prime minister, called Osama bin Laden a martyr, which was seen as a nod to militants.

When the Taliban was battling Afghan security forces in an assault on the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak, wounded insurgents were treated at Pakistani hospitals in Chaman. The Taliban took the town and still hold it.

A doctor in Chaman told the AP that he treated dozens of wounded Taliban fighters. Several were transferred to hospitals in the Pakistani city of Quetta for further treatment, he said. Quetta is also where several in the Taliban leadership reportedly live, as well as in the port city of Karachi. The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

In thousands of madrassas, or religious schools, around Pakistan, some students are inspired to wage jihad in Afghanistan, according to analysts as well as Pakistani and international rights groups.

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A ride-along with the Afghan Air Force

Their recruitment largely goes on unhindered, interrupted occasionally when a local news story reports bodies of fighters returning from Afghanistan. Last month, Pakistani authorities sealed the Darul-Aloom-Ahya-ul Islam madrassa outside Peshawar after the body of the cleric’s nephew returned home to a hero’s burial. The madrassa had operated freely for decades, even as the cleric admitted he sent his students to fight in Afghanistan.

One of Wahab’s cousins, Salman, went from a madrassa in Pakistan to join the Pakistani Taliban several years ago. Wahab was inspired to join the militants by propaganda videos purporting to show atrocities against Muslims by foreign troops. He ran away from his home in Afghanistan’s border regions earlier this year, but his family was able to track him down in Pakistan and bring him home before he became a fighter, his relative said.

In mosques and on the streets in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, militants preach jihad and raise money, the relative said, though they are less aggressive in recruiting because of Pakistani military operations in the area in recent years.

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Still, Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said that unless Pakistani authorities adopt a “zero tolerance” for jihadis, the country will forever face international criticism and suspicion. “Justifying it has to stop,” he said.

In response to a request for comment, a senior Pakistani security official acknowledged that sympathies for extremists exist in conservative Pakistan. He said it began with a U.S.-backed program to motivate Afghans to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, which glorified jihad and portrayed the occupying troops as “godless communists.” He said Pakistan was firm that it doesn’t want a Taliban-only government in Kabul, saying it would fan extremism.

Two security officials denied that jihadi groups in the border region received any official help. They said a nearly completed fence being built by Pakistan along the long border with Afghanistan would stop the smuggling of fighters across the boundary.

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Pakistan has its own concerns, accusing Afghanistan of harboring militants opposed to the government in Islamabad. Pakistani security officials say their country’s arch-rival, India, is allowed by Kabul’s intelligence agency to stage covert attacks against Pakistan using militants in Afghanistan. In the last six months, they say more than 200 Pakistani military personnel have been killed by insurgents crossing the border.

The border, known as the Durand Line, speaks to the deeply troubled relationship between the two neighbors. To this day, Afghan leaders do not recognize the Durand Line and claim some Pakistani areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns as Afghan territory. Pashtuns on both sides of the border share tribal links, and Afghan Pashtuns form the backbone of the Taliban.

Prominent Pakistani cleric Maulana Sami ul-Haq, also known as the “father of the Taliban,” was killed in a knife attack at his home in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Friday, his family and police said.

Analysts say Islamabad has fueled extremist sentiment and worked with militants when it was in its interests. It was during the long fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency developed deep ties with many of the most radical of Afghans, including the notorious Haqqani group, arguably the strongest faction among the Afghan Taliban.

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“Islamabad does wield extensive leverage over the Taliban,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “But the Taliban, which is fighting a war it believes it’s winning, has the luxury of resisting Pakistani entreaties to ease violence and commit to talks.”

“For the Taliban, the calculus is simple: Why quit when you’re ahead?”


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