Big win, bigger challenges

Published September 19, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AFTER a huge win with the Taliban taking over Kabul without a bullet being fired and the hostile, Indian-backed Ghani government consigned to history following the US withdrawal, why is it that signs of frustration are emerging among powerful quarters in Pakistan?

This is evident from many voices that are seen to speak for the powers that be, from National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf to Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid, all of whom are getting increasingly shrill in their pleas to the world to go easy on the Taliban.

Moeed Yusuf assailed the world for its ‘wait-and-watch’ policy on Taliban and Shaikh Rashid asked that the Afghan militant group be given ‘time and space’ to govern. This ‘moan-and-groan’ diplomacy is continuing.

For its part, the West appears adamant that any concessions to the Taliban, including the possible unfreezing of $9 billion of Afghanistan’s own assets, can only follow the setting up of an inclusive government and respect to fundamental and women’s rights.

Pakistan should be smug. It is not. There are a number of likely scenarios that must be the source of its unease.

Last week, we looked at the intel chief’s triumphant Kabul visit that riled up the ultranationalist sections of the Indian media so much that they took to using fabricated images of ‘Pakistanis fighting in Panjshir’ to vent their anger.

Read: ISI chief's 'swagger' in Kabul was worth it, especially given Indian media's reaction but what comes after it?

The Taliban won the 20 years’ war against the US-led Western forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan was vindicated. It supported the Taliban because of what it saw as rampant Indian influence in Afghanistan and, with the group’s capture of the country, New Delhi lost its grip in one fell swoop.

As a result, India would also be forced to abandon its strategy to engage Pakistan on two fronts, ie directly on the latter’s eastern border and through terror proxies on its western border. Pakistan saw it as a big win.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who his critics say has been long a Taliban supporter, could not contain his excitement when he said they had “broken the shackles of slavery” as the last of the US Air Force aircraft flew out of Kabul airport. Since then, critical statements from the US have upset Pakistan.

Islamabad’s anger at the US is partially justified as some columnists have written that the US lost and has now started ‘scapegoating’ Pakistan to shift the blame for its humiliation. After all, how could the world’s only superpower accept being humbled militarily by a rag-tag militant group?

Even if this militant group enjoyed safe havens, received technical and tactical advice from security officials of a small, Third World country, surely the might of the US military and intelligence would overwhelm it. But 20 years and a couple trillion dollars later the US has had to eat humble pie.

Read: Trump administration, not Pakistan, enabled Afghan Taliban takeover, says US Senator Chris Van Hollen

Pakistan should be smug. It is not. There are a number of likely scenarios that must be the source of its unease. The foremost must be the instability that could be unleashed if the 18 million Afghans who, the UN says, need food aid do not get it ahead of the fast-approaching winter.

The Taliban may have established an iron grip over the country but hunger on that scale can trigger desperate anger. If that spills out on to the streets, I suspect, even the worst forms of brutality that Afghanistan’s new rulers are reputed for may not be enough to contain it.

Pakistan will be left to deal with any blowback from such an eventuality in terms of yet another exodus of refugees. When cash was being doled out in billions and jihad against the Soviets was the official creed under Zia, even then the strain of hosting 3m refugees was immense.

Now, when the cash pipeline is nearly dry and Pakistan’s economy appears critical due to gross mismanagement, the challenge could well be insurmountable and create severe strife within the country. A nightmarish scenario indeed.

Zooming out of the micro-focus and a look at the larger picture brings no comfort either. Where does Pakistan fit into the region when the US now sees China as the biggest threat challenging its primacy as the only superpower in a unipolar world?

The AUKUS agreement this week, which allows for the first time ever US transfer of technology to Australia to build and operate state-of-the-art nuclear submarines Down Under in order to check China’s expanding military footprint in the region, was a manifestation of this American policy.

This was such a high priority for the three countries involved that while they secretly worked to iron out the deal, they did not think of informing a major ally, France, whose anger at the ‘betrayal’ was made public in no uncertain terms after Canberra unilaterally tore up a nearly 30bn euros agreement with Paris for the supply of a dozen submarines.

Coming on the heels of the AUKUS accord, a ‘face-to-face’ meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders is being hosted by the US president later this month. It will be attended by the Australian, Japanese and Indian prime ministers. The agenda remains the containment of China.

The prime minister can call the US president and the secretary of state ignorant, but still has to engage with them. Their influence is a given. Pakistan relies on the IMF to keep afloat its economy both in terms of direct financial flows and also in terms of its ability to raise funds on the capital markets.

The US is the biggest export market. Let’s not forget FATF. Ministers have often said the FATF decisions are political and therein lie the perils.

Then, there is China and CPEC that the last government saw as a big boon for the country and plunged headlong into it. The incumbents publicly say the same but in effect are a tad more circumspect. Even then China remains a friend and a key ally and military supplier.

Faced with a difficult balancing act, Pakistan’s anxiety may not be without reason. But it needs to chart a course out of these troubled waters. Merely moaning and groaning won’t take 200m people to safety.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2021

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