REGARDLESS of who ruled Afghanistan the country has always been a problem for Pakistan. And that will change little with the Taliban’s return to power.
Since the overthrow of monarchy in Afghanistan and the wars that followed it is not just the Soviets and Americans who lost. Pakistan and Afghanistan have lost too by becoming tributaries and confluences of extremist influences and the forces of instability. Afghanistan has faced one of the most devastating conflicts of our time, and Pakistan has suffered by becoming a crisis state.
An unstable Afghanistan will be a serious threat to Pakistan, irrespective of who rules it. It will provide a home to transnational terrorist networks, and sanctuaries to Pakistan’s own extremist and militant groups, inciting cross-border terrorism, a refugee crisis, and economic losses. It is critical that Pakistan help Afghanistan stabilise.
For better and worse it is not the 1990s. A factionalised Taliban preside over a divided population, an unravelling economy and a brewing humanitarian crisis. The Taliban have no idea what the future holds. So they have to keep on good terms with Pakistan. Yet they are less isolated diplomatically and can sidestep Pakistan. They will thus be a more difficult ally this time.
Is the Taliban’s return to power a political solution?
International support is essential if the Taliban are to avert an economic collapse and humanitarian crisis, as a first step towards stabilisation. Pakistan can lobby China and Russia on their behalf but dealing with the West, with whom both Pakistan and the Taliban have problems, will not be easy. The West, especially the US, is concerned over not only security and terrorism but also inclusivity and women’s rights. Western pressure alone on Taliban will not help. That is where US-Pakistan relations enter the equation.
Both the CIA head and the FBI director have been saying that with the withdrawal from Afghanistan the US has lost the ability to “collect and act on terrorist threats”. Naturally, Washington needs Pakistan’s cooperation which is in the latter country’s own interest too. The challenge will be find a level of cooperation that minimises political risk to the government and strategic cost to the Pakistani state.
This is what US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit was about but it remained inconclusive. The US was interested only in limited cooperation while Pakistan wanted a broader relationship. As we move forward, Pakistan will need to tone down the political rhetoric. To his credit, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks at the UN and in his op-ed for the Washington Post defended Pakistan’s position well on Afghanistan but the domestic message overwhelmed the foreign. Criticising the past political leadership in Pakistan for willingly partnering with Washington for gain has weakened the argument of having been a victim of US policies. He was right in saying Pakistan should not be blamed for the US defeat. But implying that Pakistan had nothing to do with it is debatable.
The prime minister also says that his position that there was no military solution to the Afghan crisis has been vindicated. But the fact that the war was failing and there was no military solution had become quite evident in Washington as early as 2006-2007. The question in America’s wars though has always been about how to end them without political cost. American political leadership would rather lose a war abroad than a political fight at home. So it kept quiet. In any case, is the Taliban’s return to power a political solution?
All this together with the prime ministers’ remarks about the chains of slavery having been broken provoked a serious reaction in Washington among the media, the think tank community and in Congress where the debate over the causes of Afghanistan war’s failure had just been reignited by the chaotic withdrawal under President Joe Biden. Shrapnel from this debate began to hit Pakistan.
If President Biden calls, the prime minister who is to be admired for his nationalism should not mix up the messages, and try not to overreach by becoming the Taliban’s advocate. Pakistan should support the Taliban and the Afghan people both — the Taliban, with the help of China, Russia and any other friend in the region; and the Afghan people with America’s help on the issues of women’s rights and inclusivity which is important for Afghanistan’s stabilisation, and in Pakistan’s own interest. To this end, Pakistan will need to put some distance between itself and the Taliban. This will enhance its leverage with the Taliban as well as its credentials as an honest broker between them and the outside world. It would involve a high calibre of diplomacy for which the focus of dealing with Afghanistan should shift back to the Foreign Office.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2021