Pakistan, China and Iran have a congruence of interest in stabilizing Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement among various stakeholders and these countries also have the most to gain from a secure Afghanistan which can be part of BRI to help integrate Central Asia with South Asia and the Indian Ocean. But rather than speaking with one voice, they seem to be dealing with the Taliban individually, thus undermining their collective leverage, while indicating a lack of consensus on post-American Afghanistan.
The Taliban have given guarantees to various countries that respective terrorist groups including the TTP, Al-Qaeda, Daesh, and ETIM will not be allowed to use Afghan territory and that it wants a negotiated settlement. But it never accepted the Afghan government’s call for ceasefire nor restrained from capturing urban centers where a large youth population has grown up with the kind of freedoms abhorred by the Taliban, increasing the probability of massacres, revenge killings and summary executions. Taliban also continued to assassinate critics, journalists and government officials. This meant that the Taliban wanted to takeover Afghanistan by force rather than a negotiated settlement, caring little about international recognition and support. Taliban diplomacy was a smokescreen to gain maximum ground advantage. This could also mean concrete policy differences between the political wing conducting negotiations, and more hardline ground commanders who continued their offensive in cities despite the risk of losing the little legitimacy that the Taliban had gained. Either scenario suggests that the Taliban may not honor its guarantees of breaking away or going after terrorist groups who may be helping them in the current offensive. The recent pictures of Maulvi Faqir, a leading figure of the TTP being released from jail further substantiates this argument.
However, just like the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, the Taliban have also shown an unexpected level of political maturity as they never entered Kabul in hordes risking a bloodbath; while winning militarily, they are in negotiations with senior Afghan leadership Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah to create a government that includes non-Taliban figures; they have decreed a general amnesty including to the American funded Khost Protection Force (KPT) which is known for its extrajudicial killings against the Taliban; they have forbidden entering of houses by their members and lastly they have tried to assure women by accepting their participation in governance, though under Sharia law. But, because they have never made their negotiating position public with a detailed policy framework under the hypothetical term of the ‘Islamic Emirate’, except calling for President Ashraf Ghani’s removal as a precondition for talks, it is still too early to assess whether the Taliban can evolve into a political party which regards domestic public opinion and takes into account aspirations of the people they want to rule, specifically in urban areas.
Taliban’s transition from an insurgent movement focused on destroying the state’s capacity to governance aimed at providing required services to the people will not be easy, especially because the educated section of the Afghan society has been a target of the Taliban in the past and has an adversarial relationship with them.
Additionally, given that more than 50 percent of the current Afghan state budget is provided by foreign entities and the Taliban have little governance experiences, they are not in a position to run a modern state without international legitimacy, wealthy foreign benefactors and an educated class. Thus, risks to Afghanistan’s stability come from all three aspects. One, although one hears of large mineral wealth and the connecting door between Central and South Asia, the Afghan state is still heavily dependent on foreign donors for funds as well as technical support requiring many more compromises from the Taliban than they were willing to make as insurgents else they would soon lose whatever legitimacy they have with the rural constituency.
Two, fulfilling guarantees to world powers regarding terror groups operating from within Afghanistan could create fissures within the movement, as earlier policy ambivalence regarding the TTP, ETIM or Al-Qaeda may not be an option. This could strengthen Taliban’s adversary, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) within Afghanistan as splinter groups join them owing to Taliban’s action against them. If the educated and well to do Afghans leave the country, it is less likely that Afghanistan can become a functional modern state with a professional bureaucracy and a modern economy. For that, the Taliban would have to forego their ultra conservative rural custom-based religious ideology that runs counter to the very essence of contemporary urban life powered by a global economy.
An Afghan compromise that secures the gains made in human development over the last 20 years, does not zap the energy of educated Afghans, or Afghan cultural vitality and does not negate the Afghan state’s relationship with international benefactors, could see the country prosper rather than being a burden or a pariah. But to achieve this and contrary to their first stint in government, it is now the Taliban who may be transformed rather than the urban Afghan society. Either way, an intra-Afghan social conciliation lies at the root of winning the peace in Afghanistan.
Policy Choices for Pakistan
Even if one accepts the military’s pronouncements that it has discarded Strategic Depth, the presence of Taliban safe havens in Pakistan have led both Afghan and dissident Pakistani voices terming the Taliban a ‘proxy of Pakistan’ which can’t be wished away simply by clubbing the Taliban with Afghan refugees.
Further, the jailing of Ali Wazir, a member of the PTM and a parliamentarian from former FATA, without legal recourse points to the state’s targeting of anti-Taliban Pashtun nationalist voices at home. Additionally, blaming the daughter of the Afghan ambassador for her own abduction in Islamabad, leading to a break in the direct diplomatic channels with the Afghan government, rather than holding the scheduled Pakistan-led Afghan peace dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, only reinforces Pakistan’s perceived partisanship in the Afghan conflict. This perceived support or partisanship led to the demand for sanctions against Pakistan on social media which were later picked up by the mainstream media. Thus, Pakistan now stands clubbed with the Taliban regime in Kabul and even when the new Afghan government is recognized by the international community, every Taliban misstep will lead to fingers pointing at Pakistan.
While the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has created both dangers as well as opportunities for Pakistan in the changing Central Asian chessboard, in terms of risks, Pakistan fares little better than Afghanistan as compared to all other neighbors because of its domestic and international vulnerabilities.
One, Pakistan has yet to recover from its own TTP insurgency particularly in former FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which impacted millions, of which tens of thousands are still internally displaced. This has aggrieved the Pashtuns and state suppression of the non-violent rights-based Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has further alienated the Pashtun youth. A military victory for the Afghan Taliban is bound to empower the Pakistani Taliban in Pashtun areas which can lead to continued instability. It is important for the Pakistani state to now put to rest any apprehensions that it is still using the good Taliban in former FATA as news of reemergence of Taliban in these areas is rife.
While it may be too much to ask the state to reconcile with the PTM to counter Taliban support in former FATA region, it is critical that the state is not seen as a party in the ideological and political struggle between the nationalist and Islamist Pashtuns, as nationalist misgivings vis-à-vis the state can lead to further alienation of the Pashtuns.
Two, learning from the American mistake of focusing on a military solution to the Afghan conflict, Pakistan should change its strategy in Balochistan, where a low-level insurgency continues to hamper the development of the province. Given that the Indian threat has now been neutralized, Pakistan should declare a general amnesty, de-militarize the province and start a comprehensive political dialogue with the insurgents as it cannot continued instability. While China can afford a stoppage of CPEC by deepening its relationship with Iran to access the Indian Ocean through the Chabahar port, Pakistan has no alternative economic strategy except the perceived benefits of CPEC.
Three, Pakistan’s vulnerability also stems from its economy that has lagged far behind both India and Bangladesh in the last decade, leaving little chance of strategic parity with India. To safeguard its economy, Pakistan is dependent on good relations with the West. But Pakistan has not been able to “Do More” for America: use its leverage with the Taliban to reduce violence, and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. Even if Pakistan currently basks in its newfound diplomatic importance of tempering Taliban’s military takeover of Kabul, which has damaged American credibility and Biden’s reputation, this leverage is short term and may have a blowback as the West leaves Afghanistan to its own devises, or restricts financial or trade support to Pakistan.
Lastly, Pakistan’s vulnerability is further exacerbated by a lack of national discussion, consensus and thus solidarity at this critical juncture, as parliament is inoperable, political opposition is in and out of jail, media narrative is controlled, critical journalists are barred, rights based social movements and civil society organizations are under duress and enforced disappearances for criticism of the establishment are rife. This is important because all past critical decisions related to Afghanistan have been taken during periods of military dictatorship without parliamentary or critical input. This had led to the disastrous Strategic Depth policy which defined strategic interests through the prism of ideological guardianship of Pakistan Army. With a single-minded focus on countering India in the region, even if it required use of religious militants, this short-sighted policy of requiring a pliant Afghan government has led to an unending war in Afghanistan while Pakistan has fallen far behind India economically.
In 1980, Pakistan’s GDP per capita was $290 as compared to $270 for India while in 2018, it stood at $1,390 as compared to $2,040 per person for India in terms of market exchange rate. Thus, those who are enamored by, accept and even worse are following or projecting Gul’s narrative of winning the war, should first conduct a cost-benefit analysis of such a victory, as support for a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul without the needed international and domestic guarantees would push Pakistan back by another generation, as Pakistan remains the most likely scapegoat.
Pakistan has limited choices to come out of the Afghan conundrum relatively unscathed or being pigeonholed in the China camp. It can either come out as a responsible and important actor for furthering regional peace; it can become a pariah state for the West for its perceived support of the Taliban or it can critically damage its relationship with China if the Afghan fires engulfs CPEC, rather than provide the needed stability to extend CPEC into Afghanistan. But contrary to Gul’s worldview of the winning the war, this requires putting all of Pakistan’s energy in winning the peace in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan to transform its international image as a country preferring geo-economics and regional stability, it should use this window of opportunity to invite India to finally end their decades long proxy war.