Policy pointers — Pakistan and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -Express Tribune

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The co-joined twins, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are on another tryst with history and common destiny. The ‘isolationists’ among us do not realise the inseparability, indispensability and interdependence of Pak-Afghan ties. One had commented in this space on the traditionally hostile attitude of the Afghan Ruling Clique (ARC) towards Pakistan, as against the common Afghans, who look towards Torkham, Chaman and other crossing points during any calamity that hits Afghanistan. Historic, ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic relationship and interests further cement this interdependence. Half of Pakistan, KPK and Balochistan and frontier communities living elsewhere in Pakistan are directly affected by any development in Afghanistan.

As of August 2021, something unimaginably big happened in our region against all … but few expectations … when the sole superpower ran for exits from Kabul, after Taliban knocked at its gates during the night 12/13 August. Taliban later entered the city to prevent looting, as Ashraf Ghani bolted with his men and Afghan money. This cataclysmic event will reshape the regional and international order in uncertain and unfathomable ways, just like the decade-long Soviet war, that emancipated Eastern European humanity from the Soviet sickle.

Reading of the situation correctly is the hallmark of any good intelligence community and most modern intelligence organisations have failed this test in Afghanistan. Some likely aftershocks of this ‘Afghan Tsunami’ include: a) strategic displacement of the US/NATO, Europe and India from Afghanistan; b) Emergence of IEA/Taliban as the undisputed and uncontested power across Afghanistan including the notorious Panjshir; c) Vindication of Pakistan’s position about the inevitability of ‘political solution’ as against a military one in Afghanistan; d) Emergence of China, Russia and Qatar as emergent interlocutors of the Afghan scene; e) Likely ‘scapegoating’ of Pakistan for supporting IEA, although bringing Taliban to the negotiation table and the subsequent Doha Accord — milestone to the US withdrawal — was mediated and facilitated by Pakistan on the persistent US requests; f) Reverberations of the Taliban victory in the Islamic World, irrespective of official reactions in most Muslim countries. This is a rare occurrence in over two centuries or so, when an Islamist force has prevailed over a non-Islamic power; g) The likely boost that this event provides to the anti-Islam forces. An alarmed anti-Muslim machinery is now in over-drive to defame anything and everything Islamic; h) The diminishing influence of the liberal brigade; i) The immense opportunity that IEA take-over provides Pakistan politically, diplomatically and economically; j) Eclipse of the US power given its unreliability, lesser staying power, naivety and ‘strategic fatigue’ within the larger context of ‘the rise and fall of the empires’; and k) China and Russia stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US/Europe, emerging as global and regional powers respectively.

The above backdrop plus other consequences of Afghan Tsunami should guide the formulation of our policy, in particular regarding the nature of Afghan state and government, balancing our ties with Afghan Taliban, the timing of IEA recognition and capitalising upon the strategic opportunity, laid bare.

First, the nature of Afghan state and government. Myron Weiner and Ali Banuazizi undertake a useful study of The State, Religion and Ethnic Politics — Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan (1987). Amongst the three, the Afghan state formation has historically remained the weakest. The top-down state enforcement (Soviet imposed order and the US nation-building) resulted in a centralised order that remained anathema to the segmentary and tribal Afghan society and was, therefore, resisted. Contrarily, Afghan monarchy heading a confederation of tribes — where the king derived power from tribes (read Pashtuns) — remained more suited to Afghan character, since monarchy was more sensitive to popular and religious sentiment.

Taliban may replicate the same, by vesting all temporal and spiritual powers (like the King plus his Ulema Council) in the ‘Ameerul Momineen’ following a decentralised power-sharing ‘amongst’ them. Expecting them to repeat a Westminster style ‘failed experiment’ in modern government is naïve, premature and not reading the situation correctly. The tribal, religo-political Taliban Movement slowly morphing into a governance structure (from its shadow government experience), is the likely future of Afghan state and government.

Second, IEA’s sensitivity in ties with Pakistan. The IEA is more sensitive to be seen as Pakistan’s (read Punjab’s) protégé. It is open to advice but no dictation and allergic to our credit-taking proclivity. After negotiating with the US for over a year, not budging an inch from their core positions, and their lightning military campaign overrunning Afghanistan in less than two weeks; no one should have any doubts about their negotiating skills, military prowess and grey matter. India-IEA relations will not go beyond a point, where the Indian financial support drifts towards political leverage. This must form the bedrock of our interaction with IEA.

The issue of dealing with the Pakistani Taliban was discussed in my Op-Ed; Amnesty to Pakistani Taliban — Birds and Stones on 7th October 2021. IEA be given time to consolidate its hold; cajoled towards eviction/arrest of TTP cadre unwilling to surrender, on Pakistan’s government-offered terms; and ‘assisted’ (as necessary) in preventing the use of Afghan soil against Pakistan, as per IEA’s repeated commitments.

Third, Pakistan’s recognition of IEA. Afghan Taliban are a reality whether the powers that be recognise it or not. The world would sooner or later ‘recognise’ this reality. Using this as a futile political leverage for this or that reason (demand) is a failed strategy compared to engaging and helping them productively over contentious issues (minority/women rights, etc). Dragging the disengagement is prolonging the suffering of Afghan masses, that all those championing the Afghan cause, so actively aspire to avoid. Pakistan should immediately extend ‘provisional recognition’ and lead China and Russia in extending synchronised ‘de jure recognition’. Succumbing to the reported US pressure and dithering is counterproductive.

Fourth, Afghanistan provides immense opportunity. Pakistan can help IEA in banking/insurance sectors; security cooperation by reconstituting ANSF; administratively providing for absentee workforce in any format, the IEA agrees; and revitalising Afghan economy by lifting restrictions and easing trade, etc. We need to garner support for and lead an ‘Afghan Marshal Plan’ for reconstruction, besides providing diplomatic and political support.

No country other than Pakistan is affected more by Afghanistan’s prosperity or turbulence. We, together with IEA, need to stay the course and turn challenges into strategic opportunities. Possibilities are limitless.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 14th, 2021.