The US State Department has urged Pakistan to play a critical role in bringing an inclusive government in Kabul as a lawmaker warned that the United States could re-enter Afghanistan if the situation worsened.
The statements follow assurances from Pakistan’s US and UN envoys that Islamabad, too, wants an inclusive government in Kabul and is willing to work with the international community for achieving this objective.
“We have been in regular touch with the Pakistani leadership and have discussed Afghanistan in detail,” a State Department spokesperson told Dawn on Tuesday when asked to comment on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has frequently and publicly advocated for an inclusive government with broad support in Afghanistan and we look to Pakistan to play a critical role in enabling that outcome,” the official added.
On Tuesday, the Taliban announced an interim government dominated by the group’s old guard, with no women included. Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a close aide to the group’s late founder Mullah Omar, heads the new government, which does not reflect the inclusivity that Washington desires.
Hours before the announcement, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham suggested the US would reinvade Afghanistan if the Taliban allowed militants to regrow their roots in a country that was reportedly used for planning attacks on US soil in September 2001.
“The Taliban are not reformed, they are not new, … most importantly, they're going to give safe haven to Al Qaeda, who have ambitions to drive us out of the Mideast writ large and attack us because of our way of life," Senator Graham said.
"We will be going back into Afghanistan as we went back into Iraq and Syria."
The interviewer, Stephen Sackur, interrupted him and asked: "You seriously think the United States will once again, in the foreseeable future, put troops back into Afghanistan?"
Senator Graham replied: "We'll have to. We'll have to. Because the threat will be so large ... It will be a cauldron for radical Islamic behaviour."
The US invaded Iraq in 2003, withdrew its forces in 2011 but sent them back three years later. Nearly 2,500 American troops are still there. No US official, however, has spoken about the need to resend US troops to Afghanistan.
'Pakistan and the US retain the same interests'
President Joe Biden and his aides often talk about the need for bringing an inclusive government in Kabul that gives representation to all religious, ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan.
While responding to Dawn’s query, the State Department spokesperson noted that the entire international community had a stake in ensuring that the Taliban lived up to their public commitments and obligations.
“It’s critical that the members of the international community with the most influence in Afghanistan use all the means at their disposal to ensure that Afghanistan lives up to its obligations under the UN Charter,” the official added.
US officials have often said that they believe Pakistan has enough leverage in Afghanistan to influence critical developments and should do so.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Times newspaper, Pakistan’s US ambassador Asad Majeed Khan argued that “Pakistan and the United States retain the same interests in Afghanistan — the formation of an inclusive government that reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian diversity.”
Such a government, he said, should also “preserve the country’s gains in advancing human rights and women’s access to education”.
In an interview with another US media outlet, Pakistan’s UN envoy Munir Akram indicated that while Islamabad had some influence in Afghanistan, it could not force the Taliban to do what they did not want to.
“We hope Afghan leaders will listen to a sincere friend in trying to form an inclusive government” where all the ethnic groups and minorities including Tajiks, Hazaras and Shia Muslims were represented.
“I think that if they are responsible, they will see the wisdom of [an] inclusive government, and hopefully, we will have a government which can actually bring peace to the country,” he added.
In an earlier statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had also addressed this issue, saying: “The Taliban seek international legitimacy and support. Our message is: any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned.”
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also emphasised this point in a statement released before the Taliban announced their interim government. “Inclusive set-up is important for the Taliban to gain people’s confidence and international acceptability,” he said.
But both officials and scholars in Washington say that it’s not certain if Pakistan has enough influence on the Taliban to make them share power with people like former President Hamid Karzai and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Ambassador Khan, however, argues that Pakistan is working to expand the power base in Kabul because like the US it also “does not want to see Afghanistan become a sanctuary for terrorist groups ever again”.
In the piece he wrote for The Washington Times, the ambassador pointed out that Pakistan has always supported a negotiated, inclusive settlement between the Taliban and the other Afghan factions as it believed that this was “the only plausible pathway to sustainable peace in Afghanistan”.
A government formed as the result of such a settlement would be a credible security and development partner for the international community, he said, adding that “any government imposed by force would be internally unstable and externally destabilising.”
Ambassadors Khan and Akram both also highlighted the role Pakistan has played in the US-led efforts for evacuating Americans and others stranded in Afghanistan. So far, more than 11,000 people have used the Pakistan route for leaving Afghanistan.
Yet, Pakistan’s role in the evacuation and its efforts for an inclusive government in Kabul get little attention in Washington or in other world capitals. While the US government continues to urge Pakistan to do more on both fronts, it does not publicly acknowledge Islamabad’s efforts.