THE dramatic sweep of the Taliban across the Afghanistan landscape in the face of crumbling resistance from the Ashraf Ghani regime presents a unique challenge to Pakistan. The civil and military institutions are already managing policy and execution at many levels, but the time has now come to give them formal shape through an institutional process that synchronises with and strengthens the constitutional structure. In order to deal with this rapidly evolving situation, Pakistan should consider undertaking the following five initiatives without delay.
1) Convene a meeting of the National Security Committee: This committee is chaired by the prime minister and includes, among others, all the services chiefs, ministers of finance, defence, interior, foreign affairs as well as the national security adviser. The National Security Division acts as the secretariat for the committee. The committee should finalise policy on:
The time for musings is over. We need decisions that we can stand firm on.
(a) If the Taliban take Kabul by force, should Pakistan recognise them as the legitimate government? If not, which country, or a group of countries, or an international organisation should it peg its decision to? The NSC should deliberate this in detail and the arguments, merits and demerits of the decision should be recorded for history. The office of the national security adviser (NSA) should be mandated to document this formally. If a decision is made, it should also be decided what the appropriate time to announce this decision should be. (b) When the refugees from Afghanistan start pouring in, what should be our policy on allowing them in? So far we have heard various senior government officials stating that we prefer the refugees to be camped on the Afghanistan side of the border, or if that’s not possible, then they should be kept strictly in camps on our side without allowing them to blend into the population. These are musings. The time for musings is over. We need decisions that we can stand firm on. The National Security Committee needs to make these decisions and also announce this policy to the world. (c) A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may fan extremism and militancy in Pakistan. The NSC needs to decide which counterterrorism and anti-extremism measures need to be prioritised and operationalised without delay. Except for measures that must be kept secret for operational reasons, all others should be announced so that citizens remain apprised of what their government is doing, and the world also knows how Pakistan is tackling the adverse fallout of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
2) Establish a strategic communication cell on the Afghanistan situation: Pakistan’s communication and messaging remain ineffective, unclear and, worse, often contradictory. Various institutions are making strategies in silos and failing to blend these into one singular stream connected in thought, logic and direction. The following may be considered:
(a) The cell should be constituted in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), under the direct supervision of the PM, and coordinated on his behalf by the NSA. (b) The relevant institutions dealing with strategic communication — information ministry, ISPR, ISI, even the Foreign Office — should synergise communication on Afghanistan through this cell in the PMO. (c) With the input from these institutions, the cell should make a daily, weekly and fortnightly communication plan and also ensure its implementation through all media and communication platforms domestically and internationally. (d) The cell should hire communication specialists from the private sector (after acknowledging that Pakistani government officials are part of the communication problem, not the solution) and if need be, acquire the services of international specialists, and use such expertise to penetrate the relevant official and public opinion in countries that matter the most. (e) The cell should divide its work into i) spoken communication, ii) written material for publication, iii) processed video — scripted, edited and ‘voiceover-ed’ — for broadcast and digital platforms (in all relevant languages), iv) exclusive video footages from refugee camps, other places that fuel the national narrative, v) specifically tailored written, audio, video and pictorial content for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok.
3) Send special envoys to important capitals: Time is upon us to pursue aggressive diplomacy in order to target the international ‘influencers’ who impact us the most. The following may be considered:
(a) Special envoys should be people who understand diplomacy, have accumulated relevant experience of diplomatic engagements, and are senior enough to get the required access. (b) They must not be random ministers/ parliamentarians who have no expertise in these matters. (c) The most effective envoys would be former foreign secretaries, retired ambassadors and retired military officials who have earlier served in diplomatic roles. Political leaders can also be considered if they have requisite skills and experience needed for such a sensitive assignment. These envoys would be assisted by the local staff at the Pakistani missions in the respective capitals. (d) The special envoys should be provided comprehensive briefings on relevant diplomatic, military and intelligence matters that would help them build a convincing case. They should also be able to handle media engagements in the countries they visit.
4) Convene a meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security again: The previous meeting, addressed by COAS Gen Javed Bajwa and DG ISI Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, was an unwieldy affair with nearly 100 people launching into lengthy speeches. The following may now be considered:
(a) invite only the members of the committee, or better still, call a special meeting of only the heads of the political parties represented in parliament. (b) Invite the civil and military leadership to brief the political leadership on the unfolding situation and request their input which should contribute to decisions taken by the NSC. (c) Try to build a national consensus on the fundamentals of policy on Afghanistan in light of the Taliban takeover. (d) Then call a special joint session of parliament to debate and discuss the situation.
5) Prime Minister Imran Khan should put a ban on random ministers issuing statements on Afghanistan: This is causing unnecessary confusion. Only the foreign minister, information minister and NSA should be allowed to issue a statement or a tweet on Afghanistan.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2021