Last week, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab made his first trip to Pakistan after the botched withdrawal of troops and civilians from neighbouring Afghanistan in August.
Raab described Pakistan as a “vital partner” as he sought with his Pakistani counterpart to “prevent Afghanistan becoming a hub for terrorist groups.”
Yet known to the British Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and intelligence services, is that Pakistan has been the leading external backer of the Taliban for several decades.
Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove has said the Taliban could not have completed its takeover of Afghanistan “without Pakistani backing”.
US officials have often openly acknowledged Pakistan’s nurturing of extremist forces. The State Department said in 2020 that “Pakistan continued to serve as a safe haven for certain regionally focused terrorist groups” and “allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban… to operate from its territory.”
Wounded Taliban fighters have been known to receive treatment in Pakistani hospitals. A report based on interviews with Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan found that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was giving “very significant” levels of funding, training and sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban.
The 2020 study, by the London School of Economics, found that ISI agents even attend Taliban supreme council meetings. ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed visited Kabul on Saturday to talk with Taliban leaders.
Britain has assisted Pakistan’s security establishment despite Islamabad’s covert support for Taliban operations against British troops in Afghanistan.
MI5 and MI6 have been training senior intelligence officers from Pakistan at an annual UK military course at Chicksands, a British army intelligence base in Bedfordshire, north of London.
The course involves lectures by the chief and deputy chief of UK Defence Intelligence and modules on “security policy” and the “challenges of intelligence sharing”.
It aims to “discuss and analyse the conduct and management of intelligence” as well as “forge personal and professional relationships”. The MOD has boasted that the course “provides a significant opportunity for intelligence diplomacy at the highest levels”.
Little has been made public about the UK’s intelligence relations with the ISI, which has seen allegations of collusion over the mistreatment of Al Qaeda suspects. In 2009 Parliament’s foreign affairs committee said it was “very concerned by allegations that the nature of the relationship UK officials have with the ISI may have led them to be complicit in torture.”
When the UK government was asked in parliament in 2018 whether it considered ISI’s support to the Taliban when providing aid to Pakistan, it simply replied: “It is the long-standing policy of the Government not to comment on matters relating to intelligence or national security”.
British military training of Pakistan, however, has been ongoing with courses in the UK having been given for years. In 2019-20, Pakistani personnel attended no less than 27 UK military courses given by the British Army, Navy and Royal Air Force.
This included courses on “military psychological operations” and ”joint information operations”.
The previous year, Pakistani personnel attended 30 UK military courses in Britain with “bespoke” training offered. The UK deploys around 10 military personnel in Pakistan, where roles have included teaching pilots at the air force academy in Risalpur, near Peshawar.
There have been ongoing high-level relations between senior officers. In 2016, the then head of the British Army, General Sir Nicholas Carter, visited Pakistan “to reinforce the close military relationship between the UK and Pakistan”.
It was the fourth time Carter and General Raheel Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan, had met in the last two years. Carter “spoke of his deep respect for the Pakistan Army’s achievements in combating terrorism”.
The following year, General Carter gave a speech at the President’s Parade in Pakistan in which he said “our two Armies have a long and resilient relationship built on mutual respect and understanding”.
Carter, now chief of defence staff, the UK’s top military officer, visited Pakistan again in October 2020 when he “highlighted the close UK-Pakistan defence partnership” in a speech to the National Defence University.
The two countries’ militaries engage in annual talks among the army, air force and navy and the Ministry of Defence holds an annual Defence Cooperation Forum attended by the MOD permanent secretary, its top civil servant.
Pakistan is also a significant market for UK arms exports. In the ten years to January 2021, Britain exported £267-million of military or “dual use” equipment to Pakistan. Among the most frequent licences granted were components for military helicopters, weapon sights, and small arms ammunition.
Joe Glenton, a former soldier who fought in Afghanistan, told Declassified: “There has been very little critical analysis over the years of how Pakistan’s intelligence services were provisioning the exact same extremist forces who were sending young British soldiers home missing limbs or dead.
“Like the massive arms firms profits generated by the occupation, this kind of detail, which is critical to even a basic understanding of the war, has been largely skipped over in favour of that very British kind of imperial fantasia which has characterised the entire two decade-long disaster.”
He added: “Soldiers, veterans and the bereaved families of those killed and wounded, should be extremely angry – and they should be demanding answers.”
“In league with Pakistan”
In his memoir, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, UK ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007-9, wrote that during his meetings with then Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai “one subject always came up”: Pakistan. “Like many of his fellow countrymen, Karzai was convinced that the source of many or most of his country’s troubles was Pakistan in general, and the Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) in particular,” Cowper-Coles wrote.
Karzai “believed that Pakistan had never accepted the removal of the Taliban – Pakistan’s proxies – from power” and that “worse than this, he believed that Britain was in league with Pakistan”, Cowper-Coles observed.
He added: “Time and again [Karzai] accused me of being too sympathetic to Pakistan, and of working for a government that was colluding secretly with Pakistan to control Afghanistan.”
Karzai was convinced that MI6 had especially close ties to Pakistan and operated in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s behalf.
Decades of support
Pakistan was the staging post for the mujahideen put together by the CIA, MI6 and Pakistan’s ISI – called Operation Cyclone – in the 1980s to fight the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. One of those trained by the ISI during this period was Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban.
The Brookings Institution notes: “As [Omar] created the Taliban, the Pakistani army gave him support for the drive on Kabul in 1996 that gave the Taliban control of most of the country. Pakistan provided experts and advisers for the Taliban military, oil for its economy and was their supply route to the outside world.”
The Taliban took Kabul in 1996 and ruled until the US and UK invasion in October 2001, undertaken for the stated reason that the Taliban was harbouring Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2001 noted that Pakistan was then “soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.”
Pakistani support for the Taliban did not wane after the US and British invasion had toppled its regime and the movement turned to violent insurgency against Western troops in the country.
In 2007 the New York Times reported from Quetta, a Pakistani city near the border with Afghanistan, that it was “an important base for the Taliban” and that “Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them.”
A Western diplomat in Kabul said “the Pakistanis are actively supporting the Taliban”, adding he had seen an intelligence report of a recent meeting on the Afghan border between a senior Taliban commander and a retired colonel in the ISI.
Policy makers in Islamabad have wanted to exert influence over neighbouring Afghanistan and counter Indian influence in the sub-region.
Islamabad’s support continued in later years of the Afghan conflict. Documents leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010 showed that Pakistan’s ISI was meeting directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organise the fight against American soldiers.
The New York Times wrote that the “ISI directly helped organise Taliban offensives at key junctures of the war”. Behind the scenes, both Bush and Obama administration officials and US commanders were said to have confronted senior Pakistani military officers with accusations of ISI complicity in attacks in Afghanistan, and even presented Pakistani officials with lists of ISI and military operatives believed to be working with militants.
In 2011, Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Taliban was operating from Pakistan “with impunity” and that “extremist organisations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers.”
A year after Mullen’s accusation, as British prime minister David Cameron visited Pakistan, the UK government said the two countries had “an unbreakable partnership”. UK troops were still under attack from the Taliban in Afghanistan and around 400 had died by then.
Cameron then launched an “enhanced strategic dialogue” involving a meeting every year in which the countries would discuss issues including security, trade and education.
If UK support for the Pakistani security establishment has been intended to influence it to reduce its support for the Taliban, it is unclear what has been achieved. In public, UK ministers, rather than challenging Pakistan for backing the Taliban, have long claimed Islamabad is keen to promote regional stability.
The UK government stated in 2019 that “The UK recognises the critical role Pakistan has to play in facilitating stability in the region, and in enabling the conditions for meaningful peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban. This is one of the many reasons that the UK continues to invest in the close Defence relationship with Pakistan.”
The UK has offered some support to Pakistan to counter terrorism on its soil. In 2011, an elite team of 18-20 British military trainers was stationed in Quetta “to train front line forces in the struggle against al Qaeda and the Taliban”.
But the team was expelled from the country by the Pakistani government after the US assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan the previous month.
Patrick Sanders, a senior UK military commander, said in 2017 that “Pakistan has made breathtaking gains against terrorists and extremists in Tribal areas, unmatched in over 150 years, and deserves credit for that.” He added: “Our relationship is very close and the role the Pakistan army plays is very important in the region.”
In March of this year, Sanders was in Pakistan again to meet Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and said he “acknowledged and appreciated” the Pakistan army’s efforts in fight against terrorism.
Close relations between London and Islamabad have continued while Pakistan’s backing for extremist groups has gone beyond the Taliban. Last week Lt Gen HR McMaster, the former US National Security Adviser, said that Pakistan should be treated as a “pariah state” if it did not stop its support for jihadi groups.
“We have to stop pretending that Pakistan is a partner,” he said. “Pakistan has been acting as an enemy nation against us by organising, training and equipping these forces and by continuing to use jihadist terrorist organisations as an arm of their foreign policy.”
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment for this article.