IT is an initiative that could not have come sooner.
As the foreign ministers of a large number of OIC member states convene here in Islamabad tomorrow to figure out how to save Afghanistan from a humanitarian catastrophe, Pakistan is banking on generating a momentum that could propel its foreign policy out of the difficult spot it finds itself in.
By most standards, the 17th Extraordinary Session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers is a fairly big deal. As the host, Pakistan will take centre stage and can rightfully claim credit if substantive headway is achieved. The forum will also provide Pakistan an excellent opportunity to showcase its priorities as a key player in Afghanistan and also frame its strategic narrative so that it is seen as the primary driver for peace and stability in the neighbourhood. The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has done well to take this initiative and ensure solid participation not just from the OIC members but also key officials from the so-called P5 countries as well as various international organisations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has worked hard to put this mega-event together and many senior officials have been burning the proverbial midnight oil to cross the t’s and dot the i’s as the guests start to arrive in the capital.
The key problem at this stage is a collapsing economy in Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan is grim. According to UN statistics, nearly half of the country’s population faces crisis levels of hunger. The World Food Programme estimates 3.2 million children in Afghanistan are at the risk of acute malnutrition. UNDP fears 97 per cent of Afghans could fall under the poverty line unless urgent steps are taken to address the humanitarian crisis. In a recent meeting, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi expressed concern that economic migrants could start pouring out of Afghanistan. He said he had warned officials from European countries that these migrants would head towards Europe so Western countries should not be under any illusion that the precarious situation in Afghanistan would not have any impact on them.
The Afghan delegation to Sunday’s conference is being led by their foreign minister and it will be important for the gathered people to hear him first-hand. However, it is equally important for the Taliban representatives in the delegation to listen to what the world thinks of them. Pakistani officials continue to complain in private that the Taliban leadership is non-receptive to their urgings. Many Western representatives in Islamabad have also made it fairly clear that their governments are not willing to cut the Taliban much slack till they see some visible changes in areas like girls’ education, women’s rights and a more inclusive government in Kabul. So far the Taliban have not displayed much flexibility — the hardliners dominate the pragmatists among them — and Pakistan is among those regional countries that is frustrated at this attitude. Could this change?
Sunday’s meeting may provide a glimpse. The agenda of the meeting is focused on the humanitarian aspect which means there will be no formal discussion on the political issues that constitute the larger crisis in Afghanistan. This does not however mean that hard politics shall be banished from the gathering. The Taliban delegation will press for international recognition that they desperately seek and need. But officials here believe progress is unlikely. Foreign Minister Qureshi acknowledged as much when he told a questioner at a briefing that he did not think the recognition of the Taliban regime was possible in the near future. But if some concrete headway is made in terms of addressing the humanitarian crisis, it would feed into the larger political engagement that is all but inevitable in the coming weeks and months.
In fact, senior officials in Islamabad say many countries that had closed their missions in Kabul may soon open some offices even though this would not amount to a recognition per se. International aid agencies are also expected to re-establish their presence in the country which would mean greater diplomatic and financial activity in the country. Both these developments could get a boost if the OIC foreign ministers can put together a plan and get it implemented without delay.
The key problem at this stage is a collapsing economy in Afghanistan. The lack of banking channels means it is impossible to inject financial aid into the system and then have it reach the people who need it most. This is a major obstacle in ameliorating the alarming situation in the country. Many Western envoys in Islamabad say their governments have pledged very large sums of money for Afghanistan even though they remain opposed to a formal recognition of the Taliban government. However, there is no way to have this aid reach the intended recipients till proper banking systems are put in place.
Pakistan is in a good position to pilot many important initiatives from this platform. However, in parallel it also has to deal with the challenge of countering the negative perception among US and other Western nations that it has helped engineer the defeat of the US. So far Pakistan has struggled to alter the perception and this has injected a dangerous coldness in its relationship with Washington. The American special envoy on Afghanistan is participating in the Sunday meeting, as is his Russian counterpart. Hopefully, Pakistani officials can use the opportunity to build a strong case for its diplomacy and try and reverse the negative perceptions that may have shaped attitudes against Pakistan.
This will however take more than one conference. The challenge to balance its ties with competing superpowers. America and China will test Pakistani leadership to its limits. The challenge will unfold in the shape of a process, but an event as important as the OIC foreign ministers conference in Islamabad can give a fillip to these efforts if Pakistan can meld its actions and words into a unified approach that sketches out a common future for the region and beyond through peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2021