‘A win for Pakistan’: Imran Khan gambles on Taliban ties

“Taliban Khan” got the last laugh. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan appears vindicated by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. The charismatic former cricket star and playboy had for years criticised the US invasion of Afghanistan, using anti-American messaging that found an audience beyond hardline Islamists in his own country.

Long before US President Donald Trump signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, Khan had been pushing for peace talks. He had repeatedly decried the US war on terror, and its involvement in Afghanistan since 2001, saying in countless interviews that it was one of Pakistan’s “biggest blunders” to get involved, a mistake that cost over 70,000 Pakistani lives compared with less than 2,500 American soldiers.

In 2013, as chair of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Khan threatened to block Nato supply routes after US drone strikes in Pakistan. For his pro-Taliban stance, he was ridiculed by critics who said his positions were hollow and half-baked. But rhetoric in support of the Taliban has broad sympathy in Pakistan — a September Gallup poll found that 55 per cent of Pakistanis were “happy” with the Islamists taking power in Afghanistan.

The Taliban takeover and the shambolic US withdrawal from Afghanistan have made Khan’s positions look prescient, if not correct. His recent calls to engage with and “incentivise” the Taliban since it took power resonate in Pakistan, where the US war on terror has bred resentment and hostility.

Taliban members stand next to people rushing to pass to Pakistan from the Afghanistan border in Spin Boldak on September 25, 2021
A Taliban member watches as Afghans cross the border to Pakistan last week. The Taliban victory risks triggering a flood of refugees, which will be a burden on the Pakistan economy © Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

For this and his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — a far lower death rate and less economic disruption compared with arch-rival India — polls say Khan is now on track to become Pakistan’s first prime minister to complete a full term since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, and be re-elected.

As Khan steers the country through a radical reshaping of the geopolitical order of South Asia with the US exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan is seeking to re-establish itself as a strategic bridge in the region for the world’s great powers. The question now is whether its strategic gambit to support the Taliban will pay off or unleash a devastating new wave of Islamist extremism.

With the main opposition in total disarray as a result of a messy dynastic power struggle and his relationship with the powerful military stronger than ever, Khan has never been so popular. The latest poll by Gallup Pakistan shows him with a 48 per cent approval rating, his highest since coming into power in 2018, and seven out of 10 Pakistanis believe he will complete his five-year term before elections in 2023.

“Imran Khan and the military are on the same page, he stays in their good books,” says Bilal Gilani, executive director of Gallup Pakistan. “It’s not just that Khan wishes to be subservient to the military, but they share the same objectives.” Khan gives the military freedom to dictate foreign policy of the nuclear-armed nation, while ensuring his opponents are neutralised through an anti-corruption crackdown, say analysts.

It’s not all a one-way street — Khan faces plenty of challenges. He has not delivered on his promise to build an Islamic welfare state, inflation is at a punishing rate of over 8 per cent with food prices even higher, and terrorism threatens to rise with the Taliban in control of Kabul — the paradoxical consequence of Pakistan’s perceived foreign policy victory.

Vendors sell food to visitors at Clifton Beach in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Pakistan’s central bank is expected to hold its key interest rate for a seventh straight meeting even as an economic recovery from the pandemic is fanning Asia’s fastest inflation.
With food prices soaring and inflation over 8 per cent, Pakistan faces plenty of challenges © Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

Yet government insiders say Khan’s gut instinct on issues — such as his decision not to enforce a harsh coronavirus lockdown thus sparing the poor from an even greater economic catastrophe — have proved popular.

“When everyone shut down [during the pandemic], Khan said ‘no, you need to trust me on this’,” says a government adviser. “We thought he was a goner, that the government would collapse, but he proved us wrong. Never underestimate the guy; he makes mistakes but always bounces back.”

Taking tea with the Taliban

Khan has been unequivocally sympathetic to the Taliban, saying that the Islamists have “broken the shackles of slavery” by toppling Ashraf Ghani’s government and that the US war was “unwinnable” because Afghans would never accept foreign occupation. After the Taliban’s government was announced, the Pakistan leader said the world should give the Islamists more “time” before judging their record on human rights and governance, a line echoed by top military officials in the capital, Islamabad.

There is no question that the Pakistan military — referred to as “the establishment” in the country — views the Taliban victory in Afghanistan as a strategic win, even at the risk of emboldening other extremist groups in the region, alienating the west and triggering a flood of refugees that could be a strain on the economy.

Pakistan’s intelligence chief Faiz Hameed taking tea with the Taliban at the Serena hotel in Kabul on 4 September
Pakistan’s intelligence chief Faiz Hameed met the Taliban at the Serena hotel in Kabul on September 4, just days after the US evacuation ended © Twitter

The Ghani government had a rocky relationship with Islamabad, which accused Kabul of siding with India, its nuclear-armed neighbour. Now that a friendly regime is in power next door, the generals sitting in the army’s Rawalpindi headquarters are feeling more secure.

At a briefing with Pakistan’s top security officials in the days after the Taliban took power the tone was jubilant. “Indians are feeling edgy,” says a senior security official. “[But] we are not looking to embarrass India anywhere.”

No image symbolised Pakistan’s confidence better than that of its intelligence chief Faiz Hameed, dressed in a blazer and pressed chinos and delicately holding a cup of tea, meeting the Taliban in Kabul’s plush Serena hotel less than a week after they took control of the capital.

It was a brazen statement, says an Afghanistan analyst, “the fact that he was so comfortable demonstrated Pakistan’s confidence”.

Two days later the Taliban — which Pakistan has always viewed as a means to expand its regional influence — announced its interim government. The Haqqani network, a jihadist organisation described by US admiral Mike Mullen in 2011 as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistan state intelligence services, plays a fundamental role. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a man on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, was named interior minister.

Since then, Khan’s focus has been to push for legitimisation of the Taliban government as Islamabad seeks to curry favour with the new regime. “It’s been a win for Pakistan, and I think the purpose of Imran Khan is to be that voice for getting that recognition and legitimisation globally,” says Sajjan Gohel, a south Asia expert at the London School of Economics.

“Prior to the Taliban takeover he was serving as the civilian face of the military-backed regime in Pakistan,” says Gohel. “Since the Taliban takeover, he is working to get the Taliban itself recognition.”

Khan went on the offensive at the UN General Assembly on September 24, when in a pre-recorded speech he attacked the US for using Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan. “If the world community incentivises them [the Taliban], and encourages them to walk this talk, it will be a win-win situation for everyone,” Khan told the assembly.

His push for engagement with the Taliban came amid increasing evidence that the new government in Kabul is returning to the gruesome tactics employed when it last controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. The Taliban recently hung the bodies of four dead alleged kidnappers up on cranes in the western city of Herat, with top officials telling AP that they would start carrying out public executions again.

Prime Minister from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan addresses via prerecorded video thethe General Debate of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 24, 2021, in New York
Prime Minister Imran Khan used a pre-recorded address at the UN General Assembly on September 24 to attack the US for using Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan © Peter Foley/POOL/AFP/Getty

But Pakistan’s message appears to be gaining little traction with the US. President Joe Biden has refused to call Khan since taking office. “Pakistan is positioning itself as an intermediary between the west and Afghanistan, it’s not immediately clear that anyone is buying that,” says Hassan Javid, associate professor of sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “There will be a cost in terms of relations with the US — what Pakistan is banking on is the ability to pivot towards China.”

Beijing security fears

Yet Pakistan cannot take China for granted. The countries call each other “iron brothers”, but Islamabad’s relationship with Beijing has cooled under Khan’s tenure.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the $62bn Pakistan piece of China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure project to create a modern Silk Road, has lost momentum after a series of attacks on Chinese nationals by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan Taliban.

An attack on the Chinese ambassador in April was followed by a July bus bombing that killed nine Chinese nationals, one of the worst attacks on the country’s interests in Pakistan. The TTP, the largest armed group in the region after the Afghan Taliban, is committed to a jihad against the Pakistan government, but denied launching the attack.

Rescue workers and onlookers gather around a wreck after a bus plunged into a ravine following a bomb explosion, which killed 12 people including 9 Chinese workers, in Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on July 14, 2021
A bus bombing in July killed 12 people including nine Chinese workers — one of the worst attacks on Beijing’s interests in Pakistan © AFP/Getty

The deterioration of the security situation has cast doubt on Pakistan’s assurances that across the border in Afghanistan the Taliban can keep extremist groups such as the TTP and al-Qaeda from launching attacks on neighbouring countries, China and the west. When a long delayed meeting on CPEC progress took place this month, security dominated the agenda, with the Pakistan military promising China that they can guarantee the safety of their investments.

The cooling relationship with China comes as Pakistan desperately needs economic support. Inflation is the highest in South Asia, and the Pakistan rupee has fallen to a record low, partly as a result of the implosion of the Afghan economy, reeling after the withdrawal of most foreign economic support.

Security officials say they want to rehabilitate ties with the US. “It’s in our interest to have excellent relations with the west,” says the senior security official. “Most of us have been trained in the US, we listen to western music not Chinese music. We have made mistakes but we need your understanding.”

Yet there is deep scepticism of Pakistan’s claims that it is turning over a new leaf after years of playing a double game, claiming to support the west while covertly supporting the Taliban. “Khan’s government is super worried if the security environment goes down and the economy once again dips,” says a western diplomat in Islamabad, “but there is a massive trust deficit with the US, no one from the Obama-era administration trusts them.”

Islamabad is acutely aware that it needs the support of the US and western allies to avert an economic meltdown, with the help of IMF aid, and avoid being blacklisted by money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force. “Inflation is going to be Khan’s Achilles heel in the upcoming election. There are rising prices and people can’t make ends meet,” says Azeema Cheema, director at Verso Consulting in Islamabad. “There has been no stability.”

In this file photo a Taliban fighter stands guard as a Pakistan International Airlines plane, the first commercial international flight to land since the Taliban retook power last month, takes off with passengers onboard at the airport in Kabul on September 13, 2021.
Pakistan International Airlines flights from Kabul resumed in September © Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty

At a butcher’s shop in Islamabad, the floor is splattered with blood and a skinned goat is hanging from a hook. “I voted for Imran Khan in 2018, but I’m never going to vote for him again,” says Mohammed Banaras, the owner aged in his 50s. “Inflation is so high people can’t afford meat. Two years ago I was able to sell 10 goats a day, now it’s down to two.”

Pakistan’s economy is expected to expand at an annual rate of 4 per cent in 2022, boosted in part by expansionary fiscal policies introduced to revive growth following the shock of the pandemic. But Shaukat Tarin, the finance minister, has recently warned of an “overheating” economy and a climbing import bill.

Ammar Khan, an independent macroeconomist in Islamabad, says Pakistan is struggling to ramp up exports and needs to ensure the swift continuance of a $6bn IMF loan programme. Talks with the IMF to release another $1bn are expected to start in October, though the government is reluctant to introduce reforms such as raising electricity tariffs that would put consumers under more pressure.

“Household budgets have been shrinking due to loss in purchasing power and food inflation is squeezing all of us, it’s a double whammy,” says Khan, the macroeconomist. “We will have to go back into the IMF programme, we need those sweet precious dollars before we ramp up exports. If they kick the can down the road, that will be disastrous.”

Maryam Nawaz (C), vice President Pakistan Muslim Leauge Nawaz (PML-N) and daughter of former premier Nawaz Sharif, holds a Pakistan-administered Kashmir flag during the PML-N Foundation Day celebration in Islamabad on December 30, 2020
The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is in chaos, with Maryam Nawaz Sharif, centre, reportedly clashing with her uncle, Shahbaz Sharif, over how the party should be run while her father Nawaz Sharif is in jail © Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty

The terror risk

Such a fragile economy would normally provide fertile ground for the opposition to mobilise against Khan’s government. But the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition movement, is in chaos. Its leader, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was jailed for corruption by the Supreme Court in 2018 on charges he dismissed as politically motivated.

In his absence, his brother Shahbaz Sharif and daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif have reportedly clashed over their vision for the party. Shahbaz is seen as moderate or open to working with the military, while Maryam has electrified crowds with her calls to take down the establishment and defend civilian supremacy over military might.

Pakistan’s soldiers pay tribute to comrades who lost their lives in the 1965 India-Pakistan war during Defence Day commemorations in Lahore on 6 September
Pakistan’s soldiers pay tribute to comrades who lost their lives in the 1965 India-Pakistan war during Defence Day commemorations in Lahore on September 6 © Arif Ali/AFP/Getty

The biggest risk to the Khan government is if its gamble on the Taliban backfires and if TTP and other groups scale up their attacks, returning Pakistan to the dark days when it struggled to contain a full-blown terrorist insurgency.

“Pakistan’s primary goal was to deny India strategic space in Afghanistan. It has done that, but at considerable cost. Pakistan already has seen a surge in refugees in the last month,” says Christopher Clary, assistant professor of political science at the University of Albany in the US.

“It remains to be seen whether the new Taliban regime in Kabul has the ability or will to deny the TTP safe haven in Afghanistan, but it seems more likely than not that the TTP terror threat in Pakistan could grow substantially,” adds Clary.

But for as long as the Khan-generals pact holds, the opposition appears aware of its weakness. “Already, it was hard to imagine confronting Imran Khan’s government. Now it’s like an impossibility,” says a prominent opposition leader, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In public, we condemn Imran Khan and our line is that he presides over a failing government. But in private we know he isn’t going anywhere.”

Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad