“The Vast Majority of ISIS Fighters in Afghanistan are Pakistanis”; Exclusive Interview with Afrasiab Khattak

By: Amin Kawa

Afrasiab Khattak, a political activist and expert on international affairs, is one of the most important political figures in Pakistan. In his perspective, the Taliban’s goal is to obliterate Afghanistan’s ancient heritage as well as its political system and governance. According to Mr. Khattak, by releasing the Taliban, Pakistan is emulating the British Empire and regards Afghanistan as a state or system that is under its protection. Mr. Khattak also believes that the West, led by the United States, wants to push the Taliban project in the struggle against Russia and the blockade of China, which is a project intended for the entire 21st century. Mr. Khatak also believes that the Taliban’s treatment of women is restrictive and dishonest, and that the Taliban’s disinterest in political parties is one of the republic’s vulnerabilities.

Afrasiab Khattak, a renowned political activist and expert on international affairs, is one of the most influential political figures in Pakistan. In his opinion, the Taliban’s aim is to eradicate Afghanistan’s ancient culture as well as its political system and governance. According to Mr. Khattak, by releasing the Taliban, Pakistan is following in the footsteps of the British Empire and perceiving Afghanistan as a state or system that is under its control. Mr. Khattak also believes that the West, led by the United States, is attempting to advance the Taliban project in the battle against Russia and the containment of China, which is a project intended for the entire 21st century. Additionally, Mr. Khatak believes that the Taliban’s treatment of women is oppressive and deceptive, and that the Taliban’s lack of interest in political parties is one of the republic’s weaknesses.

Amin Kawa, a political analyst at Hasht-e-Subh, conducted an in-depth interview with Afrasiab Khattak on all matters related to Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Khatak. It is well known that Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighbouring countries and should strive to maintain peaceful relations; however, since the establishment of Pakistan, their relationship has been fraught with difficulty. What do you believe are the primary causes of the tensions between the two nations?

Khattak: It is essential to classify factors. There has been a long-standing tension between the two countries. The Afghan governments have declared that they do not recognize the Durand Line since Pakistan came to the forefront, but they have also stated that certain parts of Pakistan are considered to be part of Afghanistan’s territory. The Pakistani government, which was assessing Afghanistan, believed that Afghanistan was a small, underdeveloped nation with which they should engage in a game. This opinion was held by the Pakistani bureaucracy, which was acquired through British colonization. This was not the right stance. Consequently, His Highness, King Zahir, was very cautious and prevented the relationship from becoming too dark; political talks between the two nations occurred occasionally, but tensions increased steadily throughout Mohammad Dawood Khan’s administration (1952–1962).

The previous Afghan government maintained a non-interfering and non-hostile stance towards Pakistan during the wars between Pakistan and India, which had a positive effect on Pakistan. This period of peace and stability lasted until 1973, when Mohammad Dawood Khan overthrew Mohammad Zahir Shah’s monarchy and seized power. The National People’s Party administration of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which included Pashtuns, Balochists, and nationalists, had its own government in Balochistan and this caused instability in the region. Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s central government then overthrew their government, leading to political polarization in Pakistan. These tensions were further exacerbated by the attitude of the Afghan government at the time. Conflict between Sardar Mohammad Dawood Khan, the president of Afghanistan, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan, increased; however, negotiations were held and there was hope for a political solution to the problem.

Sardar Mohammad Dawood Khan hoped that the Pakistani government would give the Pashtuns and Balochs the necessary time to participate in politics rather than launching an offensive against them. This was his only wish; it was expected that Bhutto and Dawood Khan would be able to resolve their political differences as a result. However, the Pakistani generals believed that if Bhutto could improve his relations with Afghanistan, it would be a great achievement for him and would encourage Bhutto to maintain a good relationship with India in the future. They thought that Bhutto would become an unstoppable force.

Despite other factors, the Pakistani generals attempted a coup against Bhutto. Following Bhutto, the Zia-ul-Haq administration was unable to devise a political solution, thus leading to the onset of conflicts.

General Ziaul Haq’s administration was established in Pakistan, marking the second stage of the conflict. Upon his arrival, Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law, suspended the constitution, and overthrew democracy by advancing an Islamic agenda. Simultaneously, in April 1978, a military revolution, known as the “8th Sawr Revolution,” occurred in Afghanistan, drastically changing the political climate. This event further intensified the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan when Soviet Union troops deployed in Afghanistan, sparking a new fight.

The Pakistani generals were greatly distressed by the division of the country, which had resulted in the independence of East Bengal as Bangladesh in 1971. Believing that Pakistan was too small to compete with India, they developed a new way of thinking, which was that the division had occurred because Pakistani citizens were not engaged with Islamic issues in their daily lives. Thus, the army officers created a network to guide the country towards Islamic issues and create an Islamic identity. They also proposed that Pakistan should develop in two geographical directions: Kashmir and Afghanistan. The West was a strategic partner in this strategy, which was to counter the former Soviet forces, and this led to the emergence of Pakistan’s “strategic depth” after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan. This approach was of great interest to the Pakistani generals, who collaborated with the West to develop a micro-strategy.

Looking back, it is believed that this policy was part of the West’s “strategic depth,” as they anticipated a battle with the Soviet Union and China in the twenty-first century. Therefore, the Japanese made preparations for battle against the Soviet Union during the 20th century, anticipating a clash with China afterwards. It was Pakistani generals who came up with this plan. Pakistan established 40-50,000 religious schools to implement this strategy. Despite the fact that the people were Muslims, there was no animosity towards Islam, and Islam was the foundation of the people’s national identity, they advanced some quite outlandish concepts. As a result, Wahhabism, Salafism, and Takfirism were spread to Afghanistan from these religious schools. Zia ul Haq was the one who initiated the strategic depth of politics. When Zia ul Haq declared, “Our Afghan brothers and sisters are emigrants, and we are Ansar,” in the early 1980s, he laid the foundation for this strategy. In response, the international community requested that Pakistan accept and sign international migration regulations and agreements. However, Zia ul Haq refused to recognize them, claiming that he did not need them, as he believed there was no international law for immigrants even within Pakistan.

This approach was dangerous and was initiated by Ziaul Haq. The idea behind it was to eliminate the need for two countries, despite its attractive appearance. Ziaul Haq and his team declared that “We have an Islamic government, and this is enough,” just as the government of “Madinah” was the government of all Muslims. Unfortunately, this topic did not receive much attention in Afghanistan. Did the generals of Pakistan initiate it? In Pakistani schools, young Afghans were subjected to brainwashing. Meanwhile, the leaders of Afghanistan did not place much value on national identity, so they were unable to make them practice radical religion. However, generations that were educated in Pakistan and were born there were thoroughly brainwashed, as they were unaware of Afghanistan’s history. Not only did they violate religious principles, but they also attempted to alter Afghans’ ethnic heritage.

The Pakistani generals sought to emphasize the Muslim aspect of the Afghan identity, not out of admiration for Islam, but in order to weaken the Afghan identity. As the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan had already accepted Islam, it was already a part of their established identities. This was done through religious schools, where Afghan languages and history were not studied. Pakistan attempted to implement its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan through the Afghan Mujahidin who lived there, but this strategy ultimately failed due to two factors: the Mujahidin were not prepared, and the rise of civil wars in Afghanistan.

Shortly after the Mujahideen, the Taliban phenomenon emerged. It is believed that the Taliban rose to power quickly during a local uprising in Kandahar. Subsequently, Pakistani intelligence took control of the Taliban, expanded it, and provided training. This marked the beginning of a serious phase in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan believed it had the necessary resources to carry out the Taliban project. As a result, the Taliban project is now part of Pakistani politics. In the 1980s, the ISI established a network known as the Afghanistan branch. By the 1990s, this branch had grown into a large organization within the ISI and was commanded by major generals.

From the outset, the ISI had control over the Taliban, which pleased the Pakistani administration as it enabled them to implement their “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. What policies did the Taliban take after arriving in Kabul? Their first task was to transform the radios into Voice of Sharia radios. Apart from Kabul, where the Voice of Sharia radio was created, Radio Islamabad, Radio Tehran, and Radio Arabia were not Voice of Sharia radios. The Taliban also boycotted the Afghani national anthem, flag, Nowruz, and Jirga. Furthermore, they killed Dr. Najibullah, despite the fact that he was not involved in the conflict with the Taliban.

Hasht-e-Subh: Why has Pakistan not increased its influence in Afghanistan by collaborating with secular and liberal organizations, despite the fact that its principal institutions are secular? This is due to the fact that it has consistently employed fundamentalist groups as a means of exerting its influence.

Khattak: It is evident that many countries with a history of being ruled by empires, as well as those with ancient cultures, share similar cultural characteristics. For example, the Persian culture and monarchy are renowned for their long-standing history and potential to draw in other nations. Similarly, the Turks have a long-standing history. Additionally, the Chinese, Indians, and the majority of countries in the region are very old.

Pakistan is a relatively new country with no history to speak of. The idea of a distinct Muslim identity, separate from India, was the basis for Pakistan’s separation. This is not a fact that has been formally documented. Muslims are spread throughout the world and do not form a single nation or country. Do the Pakistanis use the same figures to explain things? They use Islam. The Taliban are doing the same when they propose an Islamic identity as a means of destroying the old identity by means of Islamic extremism. They are erasing Afghanistan’s old identity. Starting with the Mujahedeen, Pakistan extended this policy to include the Taliban. It is essential that Afghans who have been liberated from the Taliban consider the fact that Pakistan treated the Mujahidin harshly during the 1980s Jihad after they fell into the hands of the ISI.

General Hamid Gul, the head of the ISI, was asked why he had collaborated with Pakistan, despite the opposition of the Afghan people. In response, he stated, “No, no! Nope!” He then revealed two names, claiming that Mr. Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mr. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were more loyal to Pakistan than he was. This occurred during the 1980s jihad. Communist groups in Afghanistan acknowledged their mistakes and the party was renamed the Watan Party by Dr. Najibullah, who admitted to having miscalculated. However, this was not recorded or displayed among the Mujahidin.

Pakistan decided not to go to Afghanistan to establish a system now that the Taliban are in power. Their main objective is to overthrow the government, culture, and existing systems. Pakistan is aware that it is the Taliban’s duty to do this in order to dismantle the culture and system. The Pakistani government is aware of this. Pakistan’s aim is to either annex Afghanistan or declare it a colony. When Pakistani officials, particularly generals who speak Punjabi and Urdu, visit Afghanistan, they mistakenly think they are British colonizers and that Afghanistan is a British colony.

Hasht-e-Subh: Do Pakistani decision-makers not worry that the Afghanistan crisis would spill over Pakistan?

Khattak: The Pakistani generals believe they are capable of managing any situation. As I previously mentioned, there was a network, not just Ziaul Haq, that integrated religious fanatics into the political system and used extremism within it. This is Pakistan’s internal strategy. Despite the fact that Pakistan is a federal nation, the army is still not willing to recognize federalism, even though we have a constitution and the 80th constitutional amendment was passed while I was a member of parliament. The primary purpose of this change was to give the states more power, but they are not prepared to accept it. Apart from times when there has been a coup, such as under Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and General Musharraf, our system remains parliamentary.

The Pakistani generals are confident that they can manage any situation. As I previously mentioned, there was a network in place, not just Ziaul Haq. This network included the integration of religious fanatics into the political system, and the use of extremism within the system. This is Pakistan’s internal strategy. Despite the fact that Pakistan is a federal nation, the army is still not willing to recognize federalism. We have a constitution, and the 80th constitutional amendment was passed while I was a member of parliament. The primary purpose of this amendment was to give the states more power, but they are not prepared to accept it. Apart from times when there has been a coup, such as under Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and General Musharraf, our system remains parliamentary. They essentially transformed our system into a presidential administration, prohibiting our languages, such as Pashto, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Balochi, from being used as a medium of instruction; this implies that education should be in these languages. They adopted the same strategy internally for both state and nation-building. Afghanistan should employ the same strategy. The generals believe they can handle it. How do they advance the Taliban project? Thousands of people died. General Asad Durrani states in an interview that it is “mutual destruction,” but adds “yes, but it is collateral damage.”

I would like to share two more points with you. Pakistan’s strategy is to promote extremism, which is fully supported by the West. Additionally, this is a strategy of the West. My colleagues and I in Pakistani politics believed that the West had to cultivate religious fanaticism as part of its anti-communist policy in order to counter communism. I thought that after the events of September 11, 2001, the Westerners would alter their approach, but they did not. We were mistaken in our assumption. This plan is far-reaching. In my opinion, this is the plan of action for the entire twenty-first century. What is the purpose of encircling China with Russia, and how does this reflect the influence of Islamic nations? They gained experience in nineteenth-century colonialism for the twentieth century.

Hasht-e-Subh: You mentioned China. Pakistan is currently a regional ally and strategic partner of China, while also being a strategic partner of the West, which is in opposition to the United States. How does Pakistan manage to maintain these two strategic partnerships without altering the West’s perception of Pakistan?

Khattak: I will provide you with a formula which is straightforward to comprehend. Despite appearing absurd, it is accurate. Pakistan is a strategic partner of the West, with the United States at the helm. China has a cordial relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is financially and ideologically allied with Arab nations. Pakistan does indeed have this outlook.

It is essential to initiate a dialogue between modernists, circles of modernists, and traditionalists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and other Islamic nations without the Taliban. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was given an article by Mr. Bahauddin Majroh which he had heard at a seminar in Kabul about Jamaluddin Afghan, which I found interesting and translated into Urdu. We wish to open up communication between different communities, and it is important to learn new things and gain fresh information. However, we do not always take the time to study our languages, and as a result, we are unable to reach agreements with our rural communities due to a lack of understanding of religion. Traditionalists do not believe this to be a limitation, as they are not familiar with new scientific theories or religious interpretations. If a discussion is held, it could lead to positive changes in our cultures, but unfortunately, the Iranian reformists were unable to provide a new approach to this transition.

Hasht-e-Subh: Although you partially addressed this question, what are the specific steps if we want to begin a new chapter in the relationship between the two nations?

Khattak: I have raised this issue multiple times while I was in Pakistan, both within and outside of the parliament. Pakistan should reevaluate its approach to Afghanistan and recognize the country’s autonomy and territorial integrity. A neighboring nation should be amicable and supportive. Establish relationships based on geo-economics rather than geopolitical interests. Regionalism is a fundamental concept; however, it has not made much progress in South Asia, unlike in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Hasht-e-Subh: Why is regionalism so prevalent in our area?

Khattak: There are numerous reasons why regionalism in this area is regressive, but I will focus on two: Firstly, the continuation of colonial disputes, and secondly, the rivalries between the major powers, such as those between the United States, China and Russia, which have impeded the implementation of this strategy in the region.

Hasht-e-Subh: You said that Pakistan should change its approach to Afghanistan. According to some reports, one of Pakistan’s main problems is that both its civil and military governments have different goals and demands regarding Afghanistan. How can these two policies be coordinated with respect to Afghanistan?

Khattak: The restoration of peace in Afghanistan and the establishment of genuine democracy in Pakistan are closely intertwined. These issues are beyond the control of the generals. The phrase “it is suicide for Pakistan” has been used frequently in Pakistan, meaning that those who oppose Pakistani policy believe that it has a bleak future. Pakistan has turned the Afghan crisis into one of its own, producing Talibanism in Pakistan but exporting it from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s “manufacturing plant” is located in Pakistan, and Pakistan is unable to stop this, with a large number of people in the country being aware of this. The military in Pakistan does not accept federalism, leading to the current challenges to the unity of Pakistan due to the undemocratic stance imposed by the generals. As can be seen, the actual government in Pakistan is quite different from the constitution.

Hasht-e-Subh: Why does Pakistan not feel danger and about the crisis in Afghanistan?

Khattak: If the Afghan crisis persists for an extended period of time, Pakistan will be adversely impacted. Its detrimental and fatal consequences will not be limited to Afghanistan alone. As a result of the former Afghan government’s downfall, Pakistan is now in a precarious situation. Warlordism is becoming increasingly common in Pakistan. Additionally, the Pakistani Taliban are present in Kabul and claiming that the constitution is being altered. These are signs of potential danger.

Hasht-e-Subh: You used to visit Kabul regularly as a guest, and you may have provided counsel on how to handle Pakistan and their policy towards Pakistan. You had amicable and positive relations with Mr. Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. What differences did you observe in their approaches to Pakistan? Which decision was more sensible and backed by recent and historical evidence?

Khattak: Given that this is an Afghan domestic matter, I would prefer to be cautious in my discussion. In my view, the lack of established political parties creates a huge void in Afghan politics. I have been visiting Afghanistan since the 1970s and have often emphasized to my Afghan acquaintances that a democracy cannot exist without parties.

I have been acquainted with Mr. Karzai since his time in Pakistan. My relationship with them has been longstanding. I have consistently recommended that they form their own political party or join an existing one, but they declined. As a result, Afghanistan’s political processes have been unproductive and the nation has been weakened.

If there had been political parties in Afghanistan, the political establishment would have been able to come together and, at the very least, agree on a strategy to present to Khalilzad when the U.S. initiated the Doha process. The political divisions among the camps were exploited by the Americans, the Taliban, and others. I encouraged all Afghan politicians to act in accordance with their principles, but they declined. Both Ghani and Karzai had previously resided in Pakistan, and Karzai was well-versed in the country. This would not have occurred if the political parties had been maintained and had been able to effectively manage foreign policy. Karzai was making great efforts to keep Afghanistan independent and to communicate with Pakistan at the highest level. Ghani, a technocrat, attempted to devise useful formulas and signed 47 agreements with Pakistan. The strategic, economic, cultural, and political repercussions have never been so severe. Ghani was met with criticism when he visited a Pakistani army base during his trip, but he took action to improve relations in a practical manner. Unfortunately, Pakistan was not dependable.

After Hamid Karzai left politics, the Pakistanis deployed new Taliban soldiers to fight. Ashraf Ghani declined to attend the Heart of Asia Conference in Pakistan, which had been invited to by a delegation representing Pakistan. I had also departed. He had a valid point; they were being candid with Pakistan about the fact that it was initiating a new war. Consequently, I am of the opinion that without western interference, these conflicts would not have occurred. Additionally, I believe that the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan has been part of a western agenda, in order to impede the rise, by connecting the Taliban to Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: China has deep ties to the Taliban. Why does the west allow the Taliban to build ties with China?

Khattak: The Taliban have no influence over this situation. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have established bases in Afghanistan, and they are not present for any other purpose than to adhere to their agendas. The emergence of ISIS is particularly concerning, as evidenced by the fact that books for the Mujahideen were published in Pashto, Dari, Persian, and other languages in the 1980s, and books for the Taliban were printed again in the 1990s. Now, ISIS is also having publications printed.

Hasht-e-Subh: Does Pakistan still think that it can benefit from the extremism of ISIS, given the organization’s increased activity?

Khattak: In my opinion, ISIS is the most concerning current geopolitical phenomenon in the region. The actions of ISIS will enable the Americans to implement their Over-the-Horizon Strikes strategy.

Hasht-e-Subh: What do you think of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan?

Khattak: The Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan is no longer sustainable, as they are unable to coexist with the rest of the world or the Afghan people. There is an irreconcilable divide between them. Pakistan has the belief that the former Mujahideen should be replaced, however, Afghanistan is not a country in which Pakistan can act with impunity. Therefore, I believe that there are international factors at play. Regrettably, I believe that further conflict in Afghanistan is likely. I have also informed Pakistani politicians that the majority of ISIS members in Afghanistan are of Pakistani origin. It is impossible to fight in eastern Afghanistan without a supply line.

Hasht-e-Subh: How do you evaluate the dialogue between Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban and its country’s military in Kabul?

Khattak: Terrorists have established a new front line, which is causing instability in the region according to global organizations. The Pakistani military, however, is confident that the West will soon provide more assistance and that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan will enter into a pact as they have done in the past. They believe they are capable of handling the situation, but this time the challenge is much greater than their capacity. I do not think Pakistan is ready to confront ISIS if it launches a full-scale operation.

Hasht-e-Subh: What do you think of the Durand line? Do you think this is the official border?

Khattak: We should approach and address this matter with composure. The primary concern is peace and stability. The Durand Line has been an unresolved matter since the British colonization. Currently, anyone who brings up this issue is seeking to create unrest. For instance, the Taliban sometimes attempt to remove the barbed wire along the border in order to demonstrate their autonomy. We should not be discussing the Durand Line at this time as the issue we are currently discussing is Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan’s affairs, which must be halted. The two countries are close allies and have an open border for economic growth.

Hasht-e-Subh: You mentioned open borders. Pakistan now grants visa requests on the basis of invitations. What do you think about that?

Khattak: This policy violates both Islamic principles and international law, as well as the principle of good neighborliness. It is abhorrent and cruel, and we have always opposed it. The new administration should revise this policy, as it is not acceptable for neighboring countries to implement such inhumane regulations.

Hasht-e-Subh: What message do you have for the people of Afghanistan as someone who is particularly close to some of them?

Khattak: The tragedy in Afghanistan has had a profound impact on me. For the past forty years, people in Pakistan have wished for peace and stability in Afghanistan, as the Afghan people are known for their friendliness and honesty. I want them to be able to emerge from this time of chaos, where there is no system, no law, and no citizenship rights. This is the darkest period they have ever faced, and Afghan women in particular are heroes for both humanity and Afghanistan. The Taliban‘s misogynistic rule poses a threat to civilization in the twentyfirst century, and their treatment of women is both inhumane and contradictory. It is appalling that they would deny someone else‘s daughter an education, while allowing their own daughter to study in Pakistan and Qatar. This tragedy must come to an end. As we are the result of Afghan history, I am confident that Afghanistan will overcome its current crisis, and I urge the entire world to support the Afghan people.

Hasht-e-Subh: Thank you once more for your time, Mr. Khattak.

Khattak: Thank you.