Coercive diplomacy

Published April 1, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN

PAKISTAN-AFGHANISTAN relations have been on a downward trajectory. They plunged to a new low earlier this month when Pakistan carried out air strikes on hideouts of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan inside Afghanistan. This was in retaliation to a series of cross-border terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil, including a deadly one in North Waziristan that claimed the lives of several security personnel.

The attack prompted ISPR to directly hold Kabul responsible, saying, “The Afghan interim government is not only arming terrorists but also providing a safe haven for terrorist organisations involved in incidents of terrorism in Pakistan”. In fact, since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, Islamabad repeatedly cautioned Kabul that its failure to act against TTP would force Pakistan’s hand. But these warnings were in vain.

Although Pakistan has undertaken kinetic actions before against militant bases in Afghanistan, they were rare and always undeclared. In a significant departure from the past, this time Islamabad went public to send a strong message to Kabul. The foreign ministry declared that “intelligence-based terrorist operations” had been conducted in Afghanistan’s border regions. The statement recalled that Afghan authorities had been repeatedly urged “to take effective action to ensure that Afghan soil is not used as a staging ground for terrorism against Pakistan”.

Kabul reacted by issuing toughly worded statements that condemned the attacks as violations of Afghan territory. Its defence ministry announced that “In response to that aggression, the border forces of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan targeted military bases of Pakistan’s army across the artificial Durand Line with heavy weapons”. The reference to the border as “artificial” was particularly provocative.

Significant improvement in relations depends on Kabul’s response to Pakistan’s security concerns.

While the air strikes served as evidence of Pakistan’s coercive diplomacy towards the Taliban, Islamabad’s increasingly tough approach has also involved use of its considerable leverage. All this aims to raise the costs for Kabul for its lack of movement on the TTP issue. It seeks to compel Taliban leaders to change course on an issue deemed critical to Pakistan’s security. Pakistan’s ‘asks’ of the Taliban over the past two years have been to disarm the TTP, detain its leaders and rein in its violent activities. Despite assurances Taliban leaders have done little to meet these demands, asking instead for time and invoking other excuses on this count.

The two other instruments Pakistan has deployed to mount pressure on Kabul concern transit trade restrictions and expulsion of illegal Afghan refugees. Both actions were taken in the backdrop of a spike in militant attacks in Pakistan. Last year saw almost 800 terror incidents most of which Pakistani officials attributed to TTP and other militants including Islamic State-Khorasan Province residing in Afghanistan. This represented an increase of over 50 per cent in violent incidents over previous years.

In October 2023, Islamabad sought to tighten the transit trade regime by imposing a ban on a number of items that could be imported by Afghanistan via Pakistan; these were officially designated as products “prone to smuggling”. It also slapped a processing fee on several categories of commercial goods transiting through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Afghan importers were also required to submit bank guarantees to ensure imported goods reached the stated destination.

For sure, the principal driver of these measures was to curb smuggling. But they also had another objective — to ratchet up pressure on Kabul to respond to Pakistan’s security concerns. The Taliban certainly understood the message and accused Pakistan of politicising trade. But in several rounds of talks, worried Afghan officials urged Pakistan to decouple trade from terrorism.

At around the same time, in October 2023, Pakistani authorities ordered the expulsion of undocumented Afghans residing in the country, estimated to be around 700,000. The action was linked to the official assessment announced publicly that the majority of suicide bombings last year were carried out by Afghan nationals. This evoked criticism from Kabul, especially over the tight time frame in which the repatriation process was executed.

It also provoked criticism from international human rights organisations and the UN. But none of this deterred the government from pressing on in November with repatriating Afghans living illegally in the country. So far, well over half a million have been sent back. A second phase is now on the anvil with the decision to deport around 600,000 Afghan citizen card holders; these cards were issued by Pakistan a few years ago. This plan is expected to become operational next month.

The Pakistan government is also rigorously enforcing the ‘one document’ regime at every border crossing with Afghanistan. Implemented gradually over the years, this measure requires Afghans entering Pakistan to possess a valid passport and visa. Previously, other forms of identification and travel permits were accepted. From November 2023, the passport/visa regime was extended to every border crossing including most recently Chaman. This met with resistance from Taliban authorities and criticism, including public protests by tribesmen and traders living on Pakistan’s side of the border. But it hasn’t dissuaded Islamabad from robustly executing a measure seen as essential for border security.

Although Pakistan-Afghanistan relations entered another phase of tensions in the wake of Pakistani air strikes this didn’t lead to any suspension of communication or diplomatic disengagement. The mutual desire to avoid a breakdown in relations and continue bilateral engagement is reflected in the visit to Kabul last week — after the air strikes — of an official delegation led by Pakistan’s commerce secretary to discuss trade issues.

Officials say the delegation went with an open mind to show flexibility on Afghan concerns on trade. They later claimed progress was achieved. The Afghan side announced several agreements were reached in the talks including removal of the bank guarantee for imports. This indicated Islamabad was now using carrots, not just sticks in its policy approach.

However, any significant improvement in the fraught relationship will be contingent on how and when the Taliban respond to Pakistan’s demands on TTP.

The hope of Pakistani officials is that the combined effect of Pakistan’s coercive diplomacy and other measures including selective inducements will persuade the Taliban to finally move on this count. The coming months will determine how effective this approach turns out to be and whether such hopes will materialise.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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