RED ZONE FILES: Fog of peace in Kabul
The next 72 hours are crucial for Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, anxious people in high offices are twitching nervously while glancing at their watches and calendars. They know they will breathe easy when Kabul has a formal government.
As the shockwaves of the Taliban takeover rippling across the region and the world gradually settle down into a resigned acceptance of the new reality, fears in Islamabad have begun to germinate that the surprising calm of the last few days could give way to an orchestrated campaign of scapegoating Pakistan. It is not inevitable, say officials, but neither is it improbable.
To understand the undercurrents behind these genuine fears, one has to scan the political and diplomatic matrix that stands ruptured by the lightening Taliban re-conquest of their homeland. The doorway into this changed matrix is the issue of the Taliban’s international legitimacy, which in turn needs to be authenticated through formal recognition by the world community – or at least by the most important states. According to Red Zone insiders, it was this topic of recognition that dominated the conversations between Prime Minister Imran Khan and various leaders who telephoned him in the last 24 hours.
In these conversations, almost all the western officials asked the PM not to accord recognition to the Taliban regime at this stage. Pakistani officials say they are in agreement with this request because they will only recognise the regime along with the international community. What the official Pakistani position does not explain – deliberately so – is that synchronising policy on the recognition issue does not mean the ingredients constituting this policy are also in sync.
The core ingredient of Pakistan’s policy, as of today, is to see a broad-based and inclusive government in Kabul. This is key to everything else that follows, and this is why the next 72 hours are so crucial. “We hope such a set-up will be in place within this time,” says an official who has been monitoring the situation very closely. He says there is a palpable sense of relief in Islamabad that the Taliban have kept the optics of their takeover positive so far. “This is what we had been persuading them to do as much as we could for months,” he says, explaining that Pakistani interlocutors emphasised repeatedly to the Taliban leadership that they could not afford to behave the way they did in the nineties. These officials also explained to the Taliban in as clear terms as possible that if they regressed into their nineties’ mode in terms of human rights violations and curtailment of women’s rights, it would be very difficult for Pakistan to support them. So far the Taliban — as evidenced by the press conference of their chief spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid — appear to have taken Pakistan’s advice seriously.
And yet these are early days, and much can go wrong. According to officials in Islamabad, the Taliban leadership understands that if it wants international legitimacy, it has to put in place an inclusive and broad-based government. However, the Taliban are not following any country’s advice – including that of Pakistan – on whom to include in the government. The assessment in Islamabad is that if the Taliban can offer some key positions in the government to a few important and high profile leaders from among their rivals, this would allay the fears of many among the international players. “Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Taliban offer important offices to people like Dr Abdullah, or Hamid Karzai,” says an insider. “This would have a big impact on how the government would be perceived.”
Perceptions though go only so far in influencing and affecting hardcore political interests. Sources inside the Red Zone say that Britain is now planning to call upon the UN Security Council to address the question of the Taliban government’s recognition through this platform. China and Russia, two of the five permanent members of the UNSC, have a favourable view on the recognition issue, but the decision could, if so intended, take a while.
Which is understandable, for today there is no government in Kabul to recognise, even though the embassies still operating in Kabul are indirectly engaging with the Taliban since they now control the levers of power. Therefore Red Zone insiders believe that the order of preference for phase-wise progress in Afghanistan would have to be like this:
Setting up a formal inclusive government
Formal engagement and outreach of this government with other countries
International recognition of the government
Decent governance by the government
While the Taliban leadership grapples with these issues, senior officials in Islamabad are focused on matters with a more direct impact on Pakistan. The entire effort on this policy front boils down to two specific objectives:
a. Pakistan must ensure it does not find itself isolated and scapegoated on the Afghanistan issue
b. Pakistan must ensure the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) does not gain strength from a Taliban control of the country and is not able to launch terror attacks on Pakistani soil
The scapegoating has not started yet, perhaps because the shockwaves of the Taliban takeover are still rippling across the world while the US and Nato countries grapple with internal criticism. Officials here fear that once the shock wears off, these countries will look for others to blame. The coverage of western media organisations is already skewing in that direction. Newspaper editorials and news channels’ visuals are all amplifying tired stereotypes about Taliban and Pakistan. This could get worse.
Ill-timed and ill-considered statements from Pakistani leaders are not helping either. Pakistan’s failure to communicate at every level — tactical and strategic — is biting us where it hurts most — and when it hurts most. Those mandated to communicate our narrative are either struggling with the message, or with the framing, or with the language — and often with all three. It is a shocking indictment of the Pakistani state: it can weaponise its uranium but it cannot weaponise its communication.
What adds insult to injury is that poor communication may nullify the benefits of good diplomacy. On the Afghanistan issue, Pakistan’s diplomacy has been quite effective and played a critical role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in Doha (although once the US and Taliban started talking directly, Pakistan was out of the loop). On the regional front, Pakistani diplomacy has cemented efforts on Afghanistan between China, Russia, Iran and to some extent Turkey, with diplomats in Islamabad and these regional capitals performing admirably. Poor communication and poorer appreciation of its importance may end up diluting the impact of potent diplomacy if Pakistan finds itself in the crosshairs of an orchestrated campaign.
The likes of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and his key people like Amrullah Saleh and Hamdullah Mohib would be more than happy to contribute to such a campaign. “Ashraf Ghani is the sole reason why a negotiated settlement could not happen between his regime and the Taliban,” says a Red Zone insider. A temperamental person who became increasingly isolated in his presidential palace, Ghani badly misread the evolving situation. In mid-July at a conference in Tashkent, he had an unpleasant interaction with the Pakistani delegation led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. According to eyewitnesses, Ghani in his imperious fashion told the Pakistani officials he would fight the Taliban till the end. When some Pakistani officials informed him that Pakistan was planning to host Afghan leaders in Islamabad to facilitate the process of negotiations, Ghani got flustered and retorted rudely: “Who do you think you people are to call my people to Islamabad.”
His delusions cost Ghani his presidency, and probably his legacy too. In the fog of peace that engulfs Kabul today, Pakistan may want to ensure it retains a clear vision.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2021