The real winner of the Afghan war? It’s not who you think of.

Just days after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, their flag flew above a central mosque in the Pakistani capital. It was a direct gesture intended to upset the defeated Americans. But it was also the sign of the real winners of the 20-year Afghan war.

Pakistan was ostensibly America’s partner in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Its military has won tens of billions in US aid over the past two decades, even as Washington acknowledged that much of the money had disappeared into unaccounted sinkholes.

But it was a relationship torn apart by duplicity and divided interests from the start after 9/11. Finally, the Afghan Taliban that the Americans fought is, in large part, a creation of the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, which during the war nurtured and protected Taliban assets inside Pakistan.

In the past three months, as the Taliban swept over Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has smuggled a wave of new fighters across the border from sanctuaries inside Pakistan, officials said. tribal leaders. It was a final coup de grace for the American-trained Afghan security forces.

“The Pakistanis and the ISI think they won in Afghanistan,” said Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Pakistan. But, he warned, Pakistanis should be careful what they want. “If the Afghan Taliban become the rulers of a pariah state, which is likely, Pakistan will find itself attached to them. “

Pakistan’s already fragile reputation in the West is likely to crumble now, as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan. Calls to sanction Pakistan have already circulated on social networks. In the absence of foreign funding, Pakistan faces jihadist drug trafficking encouraged by the new rulers in Kabul. A Taliban-ruled state on its border will undoubtedly embolden the Taliban and other Islamist militants in Pakistan itself.

Finally, relations with the United States, already on the downward slope, will deteriorate further. Besides maintaining the stability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Americans now have less incentive to deal with Pakistan.

So the question for Pakistanis is what are they going to do with the broken country that is their price? Pakistan, along with Russia and China, is already helping to fill the space the Americans have freed up. The embassies of the three nations have remained open since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban.

A Pakistani protege, Khalil Haqqani, a Taliban leader who was a regular visitor to Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi, is one of Afghanistan’s new rulers.

Known to the U.S. Secret Service as the Taliban’s envoy to al-Qaida, Haqqani showed up in Kabul last week with their new security chief, brazenly armed with an American-made M4 rifle, along with a squad. suit dressed in American combat gear.

“Governing a war-torn country will be the real test and the daunting challenge, especially since the Taliban have been a warrior force, not a follower of the government,” wrote Maleeha Lohdi, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations, in a column in The Journal of Dawn this week.

During the war, Americans tolerated Pakistan’s deceptive game because they saw little choice, preferring to wage a chaotic war in Afghanistan rather than war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan. In addition, Pakistani ports and airfields were the main entry points and supply lines for US military equipment needed in Afghanistan.

Pakistan did so, even as its spy agency provided planning assistance, training expertise and sometimes on the ground advice to the Taliban throughout the war, US officials said.

Although Pakistan was supposed to be an ally of the United States, it has always worked for its own interests, as do nations. These interests did not include a strong US military presence on its border, an autonomous Afghanistan with a democratic government it could not control, or a strong and centralized army.

Rather, Pakistan’s goal in Afghanistan was to create a sphere of influence to block its nemesis, India. Pakistanis insist India is using separatist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army, operating from shelters in Afghanistan, to stir up dissent in Pakistan.

“The Pakistani military believes that Afghanistan offers strategic depth against India, which is their obsession,” said Bruce Riedel, former South Asia adviser to the Bush and Obama administrations. “The United States encouraged India to support the United States-backed Afghan government after 2001, fueling paranoia in the military.

Pakistanis were furious that former President Barack Obama visited India in 2015, but pointedly boycotted Pakistan, he said.

During a visit to Washington this spring, Moeed Yusuf, national security adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, stressed the need to eliminate the Indian presence in Afghanistan, Americans who met with him said.

Yusuf is considered a moderate on the Pakistani political spectrum, and Americans have said they are struck by his vehemence over India’s role in Afghanistan.

When Indian diplomats were among the first foreigners to be evacuated from Kabul, their departure was interpreted in the Pakistani press as a singular victory.

The bond between the Pakistanis and the victorious Haqqani was indisputable and indispensable to the victory of the Taliban, said Douglas London, former CIA counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia.

Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Hameed Faiz have met Haqqani on a “recurring basis,” London said. The extended Haqqani family has long been known to live in the largely ungoverned areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border.

“The whole time Bajwa was pressed by the United States to abandon Khalil Haqqani and two other Haqqani leaders, and all the time Bajwa was saying, ‘Tell us where they are,'” said London, who wrote. an upcoming memoir from his years of the CIA, “The Recruiter,” said. “My favorite quote was when Bajwa said, ‘You just have to come to my office and we’ll go by helicopter and we’ll pick them up.’”

Pakistan’s aid, he said, encompasses a whole range of services. Shelters in Pakistan’s border areas, particularly in the city of Quetta, housed Afghan Taliban fighters and their families. The medical services treated the wounded combatants, sometimes in hospitals in the big cities, Karachi and Peshawar. Free for the Haqqani to manage lucrative real estate, smuggling and other businesses in Pakistan kept their war machine running.

The ISI has generally kept its operatives out of the real conflict, fearing they will be captured in Afghanistan, delivering a smoking gun to the Americans, London said.

The ISI also provided the Taliban with assets that elevated their international status. Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar traveled with a Pakistani passport to attend the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, and to meet in Tianjin, China, Wang Yi, the foreign minister.

“The Afghan Taliban would not be where they are without the help of the Pakistanis,” London said.

Washington’s relations with Pakistan cooled after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 in a safe house near a Pakistani military academy. Senior US officials have stopped visiting Pakistan and assistance has been reduced.

But the Obama administration has never publicly said what it suspected: that the Pakistani military knew from the start that bin Laden lived with his extended family in Abbottabad, one of Pakistan’s best-known garrison towns.

If Washington had said Pakistan was home to bin Laden, then Pakistan would have been legally a sponsor of terrorism and subject to mandatory sanctions like Iran, said Riedel, the former South Asia adviser to the Bush administrations. and Obama.

This would have forced the Americans to end their support for Pakistan and this in turn would have led to Pakistan blocking American war supplies from passing through Pakistan, increasing the cost of the war.

The bin Laden raid fueled long-standing fears within the Pakistani military that the Americans would want to dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and would rape Pakistani territory to do so.

Despite strained relations, the United States continues to work with Pakistan through the Department of Energy to help ensure the security of weapons and fissile material, said Toby Dalton, co-director of the country’s nuclear policy program. Carnegie Endowment.

But Pakistan is also agile in its alliances. China, Pakistan’s long-time patron – they call each other “as close as lips and teeth” – is investing heavily in Pakistani infrastructure.

Publicly, China says it is encouraged to see Americans leaving Afghanistan and is ready to step into the void, extending its Belt and Road initiative to Afghanistan, where it hopes. extract minerals.

But in private, the Chinese are wary. Chinese workers in Pakistan have been killed in terrorist attacks, which could portend a bad patch in Afghanistan. And the Taliban prefer isolation to roads and roadblocks that could be used to loosen their control over the population.

China is counting on Pakistan to act as its facilitator in Afghanistan, said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security for the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.

“The Chinese seem confident that they will be able to get more security guarantees from the Taliban,” Gohel said, “because of their mutual ties with Pakistan.”

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