Force Pakistan to close Taliban sanctuaries with a deadline

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Among the greatest flaws of the State Department’s diplomatic process with the Taliban has been its near-complete refusal to address the Pakistan problem. Simply put, Pakistan is to the Taliban what Iran is to Hezbollah. Neither terrorist group would exist as a significant entity had it not been for decades of support, supply, and training.

Pakistani authorities deny Pakistan is a terror sponsor and instead say their country is a victim of terrorism. Both can be true, however. Pakistani authorities deny their terrorism culpability by massaging the definition of terrorism to exculpate those groups attacking Afghanistan and India. They are correct, however, when they say they have fought some militant groups inside Pakistan at great cost in terms of both blood and treasure.

Being victimized at times by some terrorist groups does not exculpate Pakistan for how intertwined its intelligence and security services have become with the Taliban and its fellow travelers, such as al Qaeda. This, of course, is best symbolized by the fact that Pakistan was caught red-handed sheltering al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a Pakistani town equivalent to West Point, New York, because it hosts the elite army academy.

Throughout the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban have relied on Pakistani safe haven. While a handful of Taliban negotiators reside in Qatar, the group’s leadership, be it the Quetta Shura, the Peshawar Shura, the Miran Shah Shura, the Northern Shura, and the Haqqani network, all reside in Pakistan. From the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s perspective, a strong Afghanistan poses a threat to Pakistan, be it because of the Inter-Services Intelligence’s paranoia with regard to India or because Pashtun nationalists have long challenged Pakistan’s territorial integrity. Pakistani authorities doubled down on support for extremist Islamist groups after Bangladesh’s 1971 secession. The logic was simple: Groups prioritizing ethnic identities over religious identities could pose an existential threat to Pakistan’s self-justification as a land for Muslims. When individuals prioritized religious commonality above ethnic divisions, Pakistan’s logic as an entity grew stronger. Islam was a glue to hold Pakistan together.

The Feb. 29 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” however, should change the Taliban calculation. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says the Taliban are now more Afghan nationalist than they were during the previous period, 1995-2000, of sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement. The next step on the peace process agenda revolves around commencing intra-Afghan dialogue. This belongs in Afghanistan, not Qatar. And yet the entire Taliban leadership remains in Pakistan.

Former Pakistani Sen. Afrasiab Khattak today tweeted: “It’s high time for Pakistan to give a cut off date for Taliban sanctuaries on its soil after the recent developments in & around Afghanistan. Taliban, sitting in Pakistan, take responsibility for suicide bombing in Afghan cities killing civilians. How can Pakistan absolve itself?”

Khattak is right. The Taliban’s continued violence toward Afghans against the backdrop of a peace agreement is bad for Afghanistan and bad for Pakistan. For the Taliban to claim credit for terrorist attacks from bases inside Pakistan makes Pakistan culpable. It is long past time for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Khalilzad to demand Pakistan voice a date to close Pakistani sanctuaries and send Taliban leaders packing. Pakistani security services know where Taliban leaders are and can be efficient when they want to be. Only when Pakistani security agencies take action will the United States, NATO, and the elected Afghan government be able to see if Pakistan is serious. Only then will the Taliban have reason to be sincere in the push for peace. Thanks to the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the road to peace in Afghanistan really does pass more through Islamabad than Kabul and more through Quetta and Miran Shah than Kandahar and Kunduz.

Secretary Pompeo, it is time to put Pakistan to the test.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.