A lesson from the Taliban

Published March 5, 2023
The writer is a security expert.
The writer is a security expert.

JUST a week before the third anniversary of the Doha Agreement, a high-profile delegation from Pakistan led by Defence Minister Khawaja Asif visited Kabul on Feb 22. It was not there to greet the Taliban leadership but to convey Pakistan’s serious concerns about the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has intensified its terror onslaught against this country while operating from Afghan soil. The Taliban received the delegation very warmly, while displaying their diplomatic skills effectively but without delivering anything substantial; they have been dealing with the US and the world in a similar manner since they signed the Doha deal on Feb 29, 2020.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of Afghanistan who had signed the Doha Agreement on behalf of the Taliban, led the negotiations with the Pakistani delegation. Reportedly, Pakistan has delivered a cold message to the Afghan Taliban leadership, calling for stern action to prevent the TTP from launching a spring offensive inside Pakistan. Some media reports claimed Pakistan had warned the Taliban that their failure to stop the TTP from perpetrating cross-border attacks would leave Pakistan with no choice but to target TTP hideouts in bordering areas inside Afghanistan.

The Taliban have also expressed their concerns with the visiting Pakistani delegation about the US drone strike that killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last year using Pakistani airspace, and other border security-related affairs. As expected, the Taliban denied the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has reportedly also presented a file containing solid proof to contradict the Taliban claim. However, an interesting argument came from Mullah Baradar that Pakistan should not allow political and security concerns to affect economic relations between the two countries.

The argument sounds familiar as India had once offered similar advice to Pakistan, but Islamabad maintained its position that the Kashmir issue be resolved first. Ironically, the Pakistani delegation conveyed to the Taliban that bilateral cooperation in other areas, including the resumption of TAPI, and railway projects, will depend on how the Afghan Taliban address Pakistan’s concerns about the TTP presence in their country.

Pakistan has been failing to use its leverage over Afghanistan in a progressive way.

No doubt, Pakistan’s apprehensions about the TTP presence in Afghanistan are genuine, and direct and formal communication over the issue with the Taliban regime is the right strategy. But showing a rigid approach and conditioning security issues on economics reflects the same policy mindset that has produced little in the past.

The Taliban have remained the Pakistani establishment’s blue-eyed boys for a long time. Pakistan also takes the credit for delivering them to the negotiating table in Doha. As it appears now, Pakistan had very high expectations but the Taliban’s policies have shattered that delusion, triggering frustration among the architects of its Afghan policy. Here, state institutions made a similar error, and despite focusing on new approaches to deal with the emerging challenges, their attitude has been based on knee-jerk reactions. Security and foreign policy are still exclusive domains, and neither parliament nor the political parties have gotten involved in the process. The result is that the Taliban’s image as a more pragmatic actor is growing.

Pakistan has been failing to use its leverage over Afghanistan in a progressive way. Frequent border closures, and restrictions on visas for Afghans, who want to visit Pakistan for treatment and trade and transit, are proving counterproductive. Afghanistan is a challenge and an opportunity for Pakistan at the same time, and it depends on the state institutions to change the challenges into an opportunity. A myopic approach involving either full cooperation or no cooperation will complicate affairs between the two states.

Pakistan needs to engage the Taliban regime on multiple levels. Security cooperation should be the top priority, but progress on transnational dev­elopmental cooperation and bilateral economic ties should go side by side for multi-level engagement that can help accomplish difficult tasks. For instance, the Taliban regime has introduced a monetary policy to regulate foreign curr­ency and trade, hurting Pakistan’s economy the most. Afghanistan and Pakistan have been inv­o­lved in talks related to barter trade, and the scope can be expanded to trade in local currencies.

Dozens of ideas and options are available to address trade and transit issues. However, state institutions do not work towards accommodating them in their broader policy spectrum; if the state gives some space to new ideas, these are spoiled by an inefficient bureaucracy and mafias thriving on informal and illegal economic structures.

A few media reports also indicate that the Taliban regime has demanded financial assistance from Pakistan to disarm and relocate TTP militants from the border areas. Though the Taliban denied such reports, if there is indeed some substance to them then the state institutions must exploit such opportunities. This is another indication that the Taliban know the value of non-state actors present on their soil, and they may bargain with any international or regional actor in return for favours.

One must not ignore the ideological bond between the Afghan Taliban, TTP and Al Qaeda. The Taliban will try to find a solution to Pakistan’s and others’ concerns without compromising on their ideology. The hardliners within their ranks may oppose such initiatives, but their strength can decrease if their regime secures some economic and political interests.

The transformation process might be slow, but Pakistan can have a robust engagement plan with the Taliban, and regional and international stakeholders, especially China, Iran and the Central Asian states, can be involved in certain initiatives. All the neighbours can help the Taliban dislodge their ideological burden. However, for Pakistan, it is of utmost importance to eradicate any minor symptoms left in its security doctrine regarding the use of religion or ideology for political purposes. It gives false hope to the state and its people and kills pragmatism.

What Pakistan can learn from the Taliban regime is that an ideological partnership works only when the interests of both stakeholders coincide. The rest is mere fallacy.

The writer is a security expert.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2023

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