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Pakistan’s Biggest Afghan Mistake: Not Working with Ahmad Shah Massoud

As it faces a renewed terrorist threat emanating from its Taliban-ruled neighbour, Pakistan’s past blunders with respect to its Afghan policy are arguably coming home to roost.

Resistance leader: Ahmed Shah Massoud (standing with right hand raised) speaking to the Mujhideen Rebels during the Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-1989. Image: Art Directors & TRIP / Alamy

As Pakistan reels from one terrorist attack to another, including against Chinese business interests and a major attack killing Chinese nationals last week, all fingers in Islamabad are pointing towards Kabul. Pakistan’s officials are blaming the Taliban government for a spate of deadly attacks in the last few weeks. Ironically, Pakistan’s current defence minister, Khwaja Asif, celebrated the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 in a now infamous tweet. Asif is now openly threatening Afghanistan and demanding that the Taliban mend its ways and not support terrorism in Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan bombed Afghan territory a few weeks ago in an attack that the Taliban says killed only innocent civilians. Pakistan received the US' ire amid accusations that it had nurtured and supported the Taliban in its efforts to retake Kabul.

Now, in a twist of fate, Islamabad is asking the US for help in countering Taliban support for the terrorist groups attacking Pakistan daily. The Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan has mirrored that of former Afghan Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, with both sides accusing each other of supporting terrorism. Pakistan’s Afghan relationship could have been very different if it had worked with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former Afghan defence minister and resistance leader who had warned of the dangers posed by the Taliban to Pakistan and the world. As Pakistan battles to put out fires that it arguably lit – principally the re-emergence of the Taliban – it seems without allies in Afghanistan once again. From Pashtun nationalists to the Baloch and the recent tensions with Iran, all point to grave errors in Pakistan’s Afghan policy over the last four decades.

Inherited Geography and the Greater Pashtunistan

Before looking at how the Afghanistan–Pakistan relationship has developed, it is vital to understand that successive Afghan governments never recognised the Durand Line. This has continued to be a burning issue from 1947 right up until today, with the Taliban recently announcing that they do not recognise a border treaty signed by the British when Pakistan did not even exist. Just as the Afghan kings and tribes had fought the British, in the 20th century Afghans turned their wrath on the new state of Pakistan – whether through charismatic leaders like the Faqir of Ipi, or through their support for Baloch nationalists further south towards the Iranian border. Their main goal has always been to reclaim the lands that the Afghans say were taken by the British Empire. These historical Afghan lands have been Pakistan’s Achilles heel since long before it even had time to craft a coherent Afghan policy.

Taliban and Pashtun Anger

As the War on Terror began, Pakistan’s main concern was the Pashtunistan problem and the contradictory fear of both fighting and supporting the Taliban. Pakistan’s then president, General Pervez Musharraf, warned in 2006 that a resurgent Taliban would be a bigger problem than anything else – prophetic words given that Pakistan and the world are reeling from the multiplication of terror groups in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan of 2024. While the Taliban received support from Pakistan, at the same time, Pakistan’s military captured and handed over as many leaders as the US asked for, as confirmed in Mullah Zaeef’s book, My Life with the Taliban. Zaeef had been the Taliban Ambassador in Islamabad up until the 9/11 attacks and his subsequent handing over to the US by Pakistan. Zaeef and most of the senior leadership were either taken to Guantanamo Bay or kept in Pakistani prisons until the US asked for them to be released as the Doha talks began.

The Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan has mirrored that of former Afghan Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, with both sides accusing each other of supporting terrorism

Most of the Taliban are inherently mistrustful of Pakistan, alleging that Islamabad turns whichever way the US asks it to. Pakistan, meanwhile, falsely thinks that most Pashtuns support the Taliban. As a result – and as Musharraf had warned – Pakistan now has two problems on its hands: a Taliban which doesn’t trust it, and a historical Pashtun problem which has morphed together with the Baloch issue, as Afghan rulers from 1947 to the present day have supported both Pashtun and Baloch claims against the Pakistani state.

Ahmad Shah Massoud – The Man Who Would Have Solved Pakistan’s Problems

Leaving aside all religious and ethnic ideologies and sympathies, the basic military adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ seems to have been ignored by Pakistan’s generals since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Just as Musharraf feared a Pashtun force in the border areas, Pakistan’s generals have long feared the same. For this reason, Pakistan’s leaders always favoured the Pashtun leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance as opposed to Massoud. Abdullah Anas and Tam Hussein’s To the Mountains, Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan and Milt Bearden and James Risen’s The Main Enemy are all books written by practitioners involved the Afghan war during its peak. The common narrative that emerges is Pakistan’s animosity towards Massoud and the underwhelming support given to him as opposed to the other leaders in Afghanistan. The Bear Trap by Brigadier Yousaf – one of the only accounts from the Pakistani side – confirms this bias, with the author accusing Massoud of being pro-Soviet.

After leaving the CIA, Milt Bearden – who, along with Charlie Wilson, helped win the Afghan war and is one of the biggest supporters of Pakistan, having publicly defended it on Capitol Hill as well in print helped make the film Charlie Wilson’s War. Bearden admitted in the recent Netflix documentary, Turning Point: 9/11, that Massoud was perhaps the only national leader who thought of Afghanistan as a whole rather than about any single ethnicity. In Charlie Wilson’s WarTom Hanks , who plays a charismatic Texan congressman, says ‘We f*”ked up the endgame’ in response to the US cutting off funds for Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it comes to Pakistan’s own endgame, ironically, more than 20 years after Massoud’s assassination, its own Frankensteinian monster that is the Taliban is busy waging a war against the Pakistani state by supporting its worst enemies, including the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Islamic State – Khorasan Province. Pashtun and Baloch nationalism also continue to threaten Pakistan as they always have since 1947. Ironically, the north of Afghanistan would have been and remains the best bet for Pakistan to pressure the Taliban. Whilst Pakistan cannot undo the mistakes of the past, they have an opportunity to learn from the warnings of Massoud i.e. that the war would soon overtake Pakistan if it doesn’t correct its Taliban policy.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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