Growing engagement

Published June 13, 2022
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

REALPOLITIK trumps ideology. That’s the main lesson from the thawing relations between the Afghan Taliban and India. Pakistan must carefully track these evolving ties to calibrate not only its foreign policy, but also its sense of its own global standing.

A recent visit by representatives from India’s external affairs ministry ostensibly focused on humanitarian aid delivery, but inevitably touched on regional security matters, specifically counterterrorism. Senior Taliban government officials engaged with the Indian delegation and provided assurances they would prevent the use of Afghan soil against India by groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Hizbul Mujahideen.

This is not the first engagement between the Afghan Taliban and India. New Delhi had backchannel links to the Taliban prior to the group’s takeover of Afghanistan, and Indian officials met Taliban representatives in Doha just weeks after the Taliban captured Kabul. India has long recognised that Afghanistan is critical to its security and regional stability, and that blunt opposition to the Taliban regime — or even an ongoing isolationist approach — would not be possible.

That realisation was heightened in recent days following militant threats to India by militant groups after BJP leaders made derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

For India, an isolationist approach to the Afghan Taliban isn’t possible.

The overtures from New Delhi (which predate the threats) confirm that a cornered Taliban regime will prioritise humanitarian assistance and international relations — and the distant hope of formal recognition — over any outmoded sense of fealty to the Pakistani establishment.

For the Taliban, ties with India offer leverage over Pakistan (much in the same way that its ability to curtail or prop up the Pakistani Taliban does). By courting others, the Afghan Taliban can ensure that they are not overly reliant on Islamabad in terms of diplomatic and economic support.

There is an ongoing debate about whether this reflects Pakistan’s declining global standing, or the growing political savvy of the Afghan Taliban who realise that a relationship of bilateral patronage is less useful than it may have been in the 1990s in an era of multipolarity.

What is clear though is that Pakistan must develop its own foreign policy in light of these realities. The key aspect that deserves recognition — beyond security circles, where it is known, and primarily among the public — is that the Taliban will always act in its own interests.

Second is the reminder of India’s regional influence, backed up by its relative economic might. It has won access to the Afghan Taliban through humanitarian assistance, but it will retain it through trade deals, and potentially support for the Taliban to access international financial markets.

Pakistan should also carefully watch what such developments mean about the divides within the Taliban, and the resulting security implications for it. Dissent within Taliban ranks is widely known, with internationalists and purists pitted against each other, oscillating between concessions to the international community (the dangling carrot of resuming girls’ secondary education) and concessions to hardliners (mandatory veiling requirements for women).

No doubt, some of the Taliban rank and file will object to softening ties with the Indian government, particularly in its current BJP-dominated, anti-Muslim incarnation. These divisions may result in growing support by dissenters within the Taliban for groups such as LeT, but also the Pakistani Taliban, which would make Pakistan’s domestic security situation difficult.

Those who fear that the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan will embolden religious political and violent extremist groups can now point to the Taliban’s engagement with India to show that the Taliban’s ideological purity has quickly become subservient to pragmatic politics

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid denounced the anti-Muslim wing of the BJP as ‘fanatics’ after the party’s then spokesperson Nupur Sharma made her offensive comments. But this has yet to reflect the Taliban’s diminishing appetite to engage with New Delhi.

The final reminder, as always, is that Pakistan’s foreign policy stewards should stay agile with respect to developing relations between Afghanistan and India. As eloquently noted by the International Crisis Group’s Graeme Smith, the Taliban leadership is confused, daunted by the task of running a national government, and torn between “the past and future … look[ing] back to a version of their previous regime … look[ing] forward to something new”. It is too soon to tell which way it will go, but whatever the outcome, Islamabad should be ready.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Twitter:@humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2022

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