Pakistan’s Foreign Minister must have really regretted getting on that flight to Kabul this morning. About the time Hina Rabbani Khar was winging her way over the Hindu Kush for a friendly visit to repair relations between the two neighbors, the BBC was publishing news of a secret NATO report revealing that Pakistan’s intentions in Afghanistan are anything but friendly. According to the BBC, the report notes, “Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabated….Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI [Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency] headquarters in Islamabad.”
Khar has dismissed the report as “old wine in an even older bottle.” On the eve of her departure for Kabul, Khar spoke to TIME at length about her upcoming trip, and Pakistan’s “desires and hopes for … nothing more than a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.” Pakistan will do “whatever we can, with as much trust as we can, to build confidence so we can learn to live peacefully with each other and promote peace and stability in each other’s countries,” she said. That trust may be a long time in coming.
The report, based on material from 27,000 interrogations with more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and civilians, comes at a sensitive time for Pakistan Afghan relations. Kabul has long accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Relations between the two countries, on hold since the September assassination of Afghan peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani, which many Afghans blame on the Pakistani intelligence services, were only just beginning to thaw.
That thaw was attributed to recent reports that Kabul and Islamabad, angry over being sidelined by progress on U.S. negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, might consider a parallel track of their own. Khar dismissed the speculation as “fanciful writing… [designed to] sell papers. I will be very clear. The only purpose of my visit is to reach out to Afghanistan, to give them the confidence that whatever path the Afghans choose for themselves, they will find Pakistan to be behind them.”
Back in the 1990s, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies helped fund and train the Taliban at the beginning of Afghanistan’s civil war. When the Taliban finally took Kabul in 1996, Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize them as the lawful government of Afghanistan. Pakistan continued to militarily assist the Taliban in its quest to take over the entire country until the events of Sept. 11, 2001 forced a reversal. Many Afghans believe that the about-face was superficial, and that Pakistan wants nothing more than a weakened neighbor to use as a hedge against its archrival India. “That is a myth that needs to be broken,” said Khar. “I am calling it a myth because I don’t think its has been true for the past ten-plus years.”
Myth or not, most of the captives interviewed in the NATO report take it as truth. “Pakistan knows everything. They control everything,” said one senior al-Qaeda detainee. “I can’t [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching.”
Many in Pakistan feel that the U.S. has already lost the war in Afghanistan. But unlike the U.S., Pakistan can’t pick up and leave – they are stuck with whatever mess is left behind. So it may make sense to some to maintain alliances with the Taliban, since they are the ones that will stay behind. But there is a difference between maintaining contact, and helping a disruptive insurgency. If the voices of thousands of interrogated insurgent detainees are to be believed, Pakistan’s intelligence agency has crossed that line.
“The ISI emerges from this document looking considerably more villainous, even, than the Taliban itself,” scolded an editorial in the Times of London. “The picture that is painted is very much one of a force that both expects, and is widely expected, to have a big stake in controlling the Afghanistan of the future.”
Khar, for her part, agrees that Pakistan has a stake in Afghanistan’s future, “because our future is also linked to theirs.” But how that future unfurls will depend largely on what kind of role Pakistan plays now.