The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul has deepened the mutual distrust between the US and Pakistan, putative allies who have tangled over Afghanistan. But both sides still need each other.
As the Biden administration looks for new ways to stop terrorist threats in Afghanistan, it probably will look again to Pakistan, which remains critical to US intelligence and national security because of its proximity to Afghanistan and connections to the Taliban leaders now in charge.
Over two decades of war, American officials accused Pakistan of playing a double game by promising to fight terrorism and cooperate with Washington while cultivating the Taliban and other extremist groups that attacked US forces in Afghanistan.
Islamabad pointed to what it saw as failed promises of a supportive government in Kabul after the US drove the Taliban from power after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as extremist groups took refuge in eastern Afghanistan and launched deadly attacks throughout Pakistan.
But the US wants Pakistani cooperation in counterterrorism efforts and could seek permission to fly surveillance flights into Afghanistan or other intelligence cooperation. Pakistan wants US military aid and good relations with Washington, even as its leaders openly celebrate the Taliban’s rise to power.
“Over the last 20 years, Pakistan has been vital for various logistics purposes for the US military. What’s really been troubling is that, unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of trust,” said US Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who is on the House Intelligence Committee.
“I think the question is whether we can get over that history to arrive at a new understanding.”
Pakistan’s prime minister, in remarks Friday to the UN General Assembly, made clear there is a long way to go. Imran Khan tried to portray his country as the victim of American ungratefulness for its assistance in Afghanistan over the years. Instead of a mere “word of appreciation,” Pakistan has received blame, Khan said.
Former diplomats and intelligence officers from both countries say the possibilities for cooperation are severely limited by the events of the past two decades and Pakistan’s enduring competition with India.
The previous Afghan government, which was strongly backed by India, routinely accused Pakistan of harboring the Taliban.
The new Taliban government includes officials that American officials have long believed are linked to Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said he understood “the temptation of officials in both countries to try and take advantage of the situation” and find common ground. But Haqqani said he expected Pakistan to give “all possible cooperation to the Taliban.”
“This has been a moment Pakistan has been waiting for 20 years,” said Haqqani, now at the Hudson Institute think tank. “They now feel that they have a satellite state.”
US officials are trying to quickly build what President Joe Biden calls an “over the horizon” capacity to monitor and stop terrorist threats.
Without a partner country bordering Afghanistan, the US has to fly surveillance drones long distances, limiting the time they can be used to watch over targets. The US also lost most of its network of informants and intelligence partners in the now-deposed Afghan government, making it critical to find common ground with other governments that have more resources in the country.
Pakistan could be helpful in that effort by allowing “overflight” rights for American spy planes from the Persian Gulf or permitting the US to base surveillance or counterterrorism teams along its border with Afghanistan.
There are few other options among Afghanistan’s neighbors. Iran is a US adversary and Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan all face varying degrees of Russian influence.