Published January 2, 2022
Afghanistan’s interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi welcomes Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi upon his arrival at Kabul airport | AFP
Afghanistan’s interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi welcomes Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi upon his arrival at Kabul airport | AFP

Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban movement, Pakistan has led efforts to address and get a consensus on three big issues of concern for regional and extra-regional states: continue to monitor and work with the Taliban interim government; press upon the world capitals the urgency to help the people of Afghanistan and avert the evolving humanitarian crisis in that country; and, thirdly, to nudge the Taliban leadership to respect the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan and work out a political arrangement that reflects the political, ethnic and ideological diversity of Afghanistan.

In doing so, Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts have consistently made the case for a coordinated regional and global approach. However, as should be obvious, Pakistan is dealing with other state actors that have their own interests and preferences, which may or may not be entirely in sync with Pakistan’s. This makes for sub-optimal outcomes.

On December 16, the 17th extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers discussed the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Hosted by Pakistan, it was the latest attempt by Islamabad not only to involve the 57-member OIC body but also get observer delegations from the United States, China, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. While no direct pledges were made, the session decided to set up a Humanitarian Trust Fund and Food Security Programme to deal with the rapidly aggravating crisis.

Pakistan has been trying to de-link the issue of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan from what the world expects from the Taliban interim government. But it should not allow the Taliban to brush under the rug issues of major concern to Pakistan

Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke at the extraordinary session and warned the world that, unless immediate measures were taken, Afghanistan could become the biggest “man-made crisis in the world.” His warning is in keeping with recent assessments put out by the United Nations and its relevant bodies regarding the crisis that is unfolding in that country.

The stress on relief supplies for the people of Afghanistan is essential. But beyond the immediate, it is also linked with other issues the world — primarily the US and some of its allies — wants the interim government to address.

When the Taliban movement announced an interim government in September, Pakistan officially stated that such a set-up must result in a governance structure which meets the urgent needs of the people of Afghanistan. The statement acknowledged that Pakistan needs to stay connected with what’s on the ground because that’s the only political set-up in and through which Pakistan can deal with the situation. Equally, Islamabad expects that the interim government will address the requirements of a governance structure that reflects the needs of the people of Afghanistan.

Much of what Pakistan wants has not happened. The interim government, while having a token presence of non-Pashtun ethnic representation, has so far not reached out to other political actors. Ditto for ensuring the rights of women and other minorities. Going by statements from interim government leaders, it is clear that the Taliban leadership interprets the concepts of rights and inclusiveness in a way that falls much short of what is stipulated by international norms and standards.

This was also clear from what Amir Muttaqi, the interim foreign minister of Afghanistan, said at the OIC session, both with reference to inclusiveness and women’s rights.

“We, as a representative and responsible government of the Afghan people, consider human rights, women rights and participation by all capable Afghans from various regions our duty,” Muttaqi said. But he went on to add that “a very effective decree was announced by the leader of the Islamic Emirate about the rights of women which shall prove instrumental in giving them their rights.”

The decree, while declaring women “free”, makes no mention of their right to education and professional work and was dismissed by some Afghan women activists as “posturing intended for the international community, not Afghan women.”

Pakistan’s stated position in respect to other states is grounded in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. The issue of rights, therefore, becomes tricky. However, since the world wants the interim government to accept international norms if it wants legitimacy, and since doing so will also help ameliorate the situation on the ground, Pakistan has been trying to de-link the issue of humanitarian aid from these preconditions, while nudging the Taliban to move in that direction.

The humanitarian crisis is also linked to two other concerns Pakistan has: the refugee influx and the hard security threat that such influx could bring to Pakistan, and which is in addition to the economic burden that attends such influx.

It’s a tough call. But there is no way out of it.

The humanitarian crisis is also linked to two other concerns Pakistan has: the refugee influx and the hard security threat that such influx could bring to Pakistan, and which is in addition to the economic burden that attends such influx.

Further, two other issues continue to hang fire — the non-acceptance of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (the so-called Durand Line) and the presence on Afghanistan soil of terrorist groups that mount attack on targets inside Pakistan. These include the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Baloch conglomerate Baloch Raaji Aajaoi Sangar (BRAS), and Islamic State-Khorasan.

The border issue doesn’t seem to go away and has underpinned Kabul’s irredentism since Pakistan’s inception. It was — and remains — a major point of contention. The trend continued even under the US-propped governments in Kabul.

Pakistan’s second concern was India’s activities in Afghanistan, in collusion with the Afghan National Directorate of Security. It is a matter of record that India used the opportunity to wage a covert war against Pakistan, especially by supporting the Baloch militant groups.

Has the situation changed? Not really. The Durand Line problem persists, as is evident from events in the past few days, with reference to fencing on the border. Taliban fighters took away rolls of concertina wire and also threatened Pakistani soldiers.

In an earlier incident, Taliban fighters had removed the Pakistan flag from trucks that were carrying humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. In the recent incident, it seems that Pakistan has tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to a consensual approach to fencing. This, if true, is a big mistake and grants a veto to Afghanistan on what Pakistan can do on its own soil.

A couple of months before the fall of Kabul, Ashraf Ghani inaugurated an airport in Khost. Speaking on that occasion, he had called upon the Taliban and said that, if they were to come to power, they should also not recognise the border with Pakistan.

Taliban have also reached out to India and got Pakistan to agree to allowing transportation of Indian wheat overland in Afghan trucks. Official sources called it a one-off ask. That seems unduly sanguine. The Taliban have shown themselves to be wily and shrewd negotiators. There is no guarantee that, in the future, they would not want to exploit the India card in case relations between Islamabad and Kabul begin to deteriorate.

That possibility is not a long shot. Despite assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used against another state, the Taliban have shied so far from taking action against the TTP. Instead, they want Pakistan to talk to the group with the Haqqani Network acting as the facilitator.

Given the undue enthusiasm of PM Khan for such talks, Pakistan did try that approach. Predictably, it didn’t work. This problem should be, and will become, a litmus test of Pakistan’s dealings with the Taliban.

So, while Pakistan remains engaged with the world in trying to ameliorate the situation in Afghanistan, it is not getting any quid for that quo. The argument here is not that Pakistan should lose sight of what must be done for the people of Afghanistan. Doing so is both moral and practical.

But that should not mean allowing the Taliban interim government to brush issues of major concern to Pakistan under the rug. A clear recognition of the border and dealing with the TTP (and other groups) stand out as the big-ticket issues.

If the interim government of Afghanistan does not deliver on them, then the Taliban-ruled Kabul will become as much a problem as the US-backed governments were.

The writer is a journalist with interest in foreign and security policies.

He tweets @ejazhaider

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 2nd, 2022



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