Pakistan remains committed to diplomatic efforts to address the evolving situation in Afghanistan and get a broad regional consensus on a coordinated approach. However, it might be rowing against the current for two reasons. Regional countries (especially, Iran) have their own preferences and interests in Afghanistan, and the Taliban leadership seems to be grappling with internal debates on how best to move forward. Consider.
On September 8, Pakistan hosted a virtual ministerial meeting of foreign ministers from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi chaired the meeting, which was a follow-up to the discussions held at the Special Representatives/Envoys meeting on September 5. No joint statement was issued after the Wednesday ministerial and statements by the foreign ministries of participating countries seemed to stress their own preferences and preferred outcomes.
Iran’s foreign minister Amir Abdollahian tweeted after the ministerial: “Virtually met FMs of 6 neighbors of Afghanistan. Emphasized on security, stability & development by formation of an inclusive gov reflecting diversity & will of Afghan ppl; dialogue instead of violence; rejection of foreign intervention. We support intra-Afghan talks & agreements.” (italics added)
It is important to note the italics in the above tweet, especially the bit about “rejection of foreign intervention.” Abdollahian’s Wednesday night tweet is in line with what Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said at a daily press briefing on Monday. Speaking about the Taliban offensive in Panjshir, Khatibzadeh said that “news from Panjshir is very worrying. The attacks [on Panjshir] last night [are] strongly condemned.” He then went on to say, without naming Pakistan, that “Everyone should know that the history of Afghanistan has shown that foreign intervention has no result but failure.”
It is no coincidence that this refrain about “foreign intervention” syncs with fake news on the social media and Indian TV channels about Pakistani troops and aerial assets being deployed to the area in support of Taliban fighters. George Allison, editor at the UK Defence Journal, tweeted: “Indian news channel @TimesNow has shared video footage it described as “1st visuals of a fighter jet, allegedly belonging to Pakistan, hovering over Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan”; the trouble? It’s an American jet flying through Welsh valleys.” Indian media also showed clips from a video game Arma-3, claiming the visuals showed Pakistani fighter jets attacking the anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir. The fakery was pointed out by fact-check website Boom.
But the real point should not be lost on anyone. It would be naiveté at its most naive to think that Iran, at the highest official levels, can fall for such fakery. Corollary: these statements are a deliberate attempt to pressure Pakistan. Similarly, Tajikistan also called for “a government of national reconciliation.”
This is precisely the position of Pakistan. Islamabad has constantly and consistently talked about a board-based, inclusive government. It continues to work towards that outcome. At the same time, as Mr Qureshi said at the ministerial, regional states have to take a “realistic approach in view of the changed [ground] reality in Afghanistan.”
In view of the situation, Pakistan has three immediate concerns: continue to monitor and work with the Taliban interim government; assist Afghanistan as much as Pakistan can do with that country’s humanitarian needs while also calling upon the world community to share that responsibility; and nudging the Taliban leadership to reach out to other stakeholders (political and ethnic groups), including the National Resistance Front (NRF) in order to work out a political arrangement that reflects the diversity of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has “noted the latest announcement about formation of an interim political set-up in Kabul, which would address the requirement of a governance structure to meet the urgent needs of the people of Afghanistan.” It should be clear from this statement put out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that (a) Pakistan wants to stay connected with what’s on the ground because that’s the only set-up in and through which it can be useful and (b) expects that this interim arrangement will address the requirement of a governance structure that reflects the needs of the people of Afghanistan. To this end “the new political dispensation” should also “ensure coordinated efforts for peace, security and stability in Afghanistan as well as work towards taking care of humanitarian and development needs of the Afghan people.”
Pakistan has three immediate concerns: continue to monitor and work with the Taliban interim government; assist Afghanistan as much as Pakistan can do with that country’s humanitarian needs while also calling upon the world community to share that responsibility; and nudging the Taliban leadership to reach out to other stakeholders
Pakistan has already announced humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. Three Pakistan Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft will deliver food, medicines and other supplies to Kabul while more supplies will be sent overland.
Now, to the third point, nudging the Taliban to reach out to other leaders, especially Ahmad Massoud’s NRF. Contrary to Indian propaganda and fakery, as also statements by Iran’s foreign minister and his ministry’s spokesperson, Pakistan is playing a leading role in effecting an agreement between Ahmad Massoud and the Taliban.
Let me reproduce my exchange with someone very close to Ahmad Massoud. I had asked him if I could cite the exchange by referring to a very close source or use it for my analysis without any attribution. The source cleared me for attribution without naming him, though. So here goes.
The exchange began with me asking him about Ahmad Massoud.
Source: “I was with him till yesterday. Now back in…He’s hanging on. Got the peaks north of Panjshir. Talks and fighting [going on]. Looking grim though, to be honest. Taliban are still open to him [and] Pakistan [is] playing [a] positive role, despite stupid Indian propaganda.”
EH: “Many thanks for the update, ….. as a minor student of operational strategy, I don’t see how he can reorg [at this stage] for a counter offensive and retake lost territory. I would think talks are the best way out.”
Source: “Yes, definitely. He has been talking directly to [Mullah Mohammad] Yaqub and Anas [Haqqani]. Their reps met. Sadly [there are] many spoilers as you know. India and [Amrullah] Saleh top [of the list]. Even most Panjshiris hate [Amrullah] Saleh. He made millions with [Ashraf] Ghani. My fear is that the spoilers might win. He would be the casualty of that.”
The above exchange should give a lie to social media fakery and propaganda against Pakistan by India (for obvious reasons), remnants of some Afghans with foreign passports and even some Pakistanis who I don’t need to name but who have been up to their dirty tricks since the Soviet Union; it should also make clear the efforts Pakistan is making to get the warring factions to come to the negotiating table.
But as I have noted before in this space, Pakistan is just one actor. For all its efforts, it cannot and does not dominate a situation which is complex and fields many other actors with their own agency and interests.
There is yet another problem, which needs a more elaborate treatment but which is necessary to flag here. The post-2003/4 Taliban movement evolved at a time when Afghanistan was occupied by the United States and its NATO allies. These were militaries with very advanced intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities. For a much-weaker insurgent force, organising, planning and executing operations required polycentricity. Equally, the Taliban sought to maintain a hierarchy among the leadership so they could get a balance between unity of command and operational flexibility. But there has been tension and debates within. Those debates continue. As in all such movements, there are pragmatists and hardliners. But even the pragmatists have to remain anchored in the ideology. By all accounts that back-and-forth continues on a number of issues.
Pakistan’s facilitation has been grounded in the obvious exhortation that Taliban should pull in others, respect basic rights and create space for engagement with the rest of the world. That is the only way forward. To what extent that could come to pass would of course depend on what values emerge from the collision and collation of ideology and pragmatism.
The writer is a journalist with interest in security and foreign affairs. He tweets @ejazhaider