Miltablishment leaders admit that the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan is faced with serious challenges going forward. Equally, they worry that if the Kabul regime is unable to overcome these, the political and military blowback will exact a heavy toll of state and society in Pakistan. Consider.
The international community is demanding an inclusive government, protection for human rights and clampdown on terrorist groups sanctuaried in Afghanistan before it is ready to consider granting lawful recognition to Kabul. But the Taliban are not obliging on any issue. The new caretaker government is composed exclusively of Taliban hardliners, 17 of whose members are on various international terrorist lists and they have not indicated if and when their government will become inclusive of other stakeholders and power blocs in Afghanistan. The Taliban have also made clear that they have no intention of forceful action against Al-Qaeda, IS-K, TTP, ETM, etc., and have advised concerned regional neighbours to directly negotiate peace with such groups. Unfortunately, too, their initial limited concessions to media and women have swiftly been rolled back.
Kabul faces an economic shutdown. But Western and regional powers are not immediately ready to bail it out financially. The developing humanitarian crisis will flood Pakistan with refugees, straining scarce resources, alienating locals and exacerbating tensions. A related consequence would be an increase in crime and terrorism. Worse, it might frustrate and alienate the Taliban regime into repression at home and isolation abroad, blocking the anticipated journey from Taliban 1.0 to 2.0, and provoking regional and international sanctions.
Understandably, Pakistan is urging the international community to accord recognition to the Taliban regime as a preconditional “incentive” for peace, stability and compliance with international demands. But this plea is falling on deaf ears in Washington. On the contrary, powerful voices in the US government are seeking to target Pakistan for their own failures in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s resolve to review Pakistan’s “double-dealing” – articulated by three previous US Presidents – over the last two decades and take steps to get Pakistan to deliver on US concerns and priorities today is ominous. Unfortunately for Pakistan, since the country’s trade, aid and debt is tied to the US and Europe, it has no wriggle room to leverage its point of view.
The cold fact is that Islamabad is faced with new existential choices. Washington is gearing up to confront China in a new cold war dialectic. Next week President Biden will host the PMs of India, Japan and Australia to firm up its QUAD strategy to contain China. Equally, Russia, Iran, India and the Central Asian Republics are jointly poised to thwart any unconditional pro-Kabul initiatives by Pakistan and China at the SCO moot next month. Thus the more Pakistan tilts toward China, the greater its estrangement from regional and international power blocs.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s domestic polity is acutely divided and vulnerable precisely when it faces its most daunting national security challenge internationally. The “hybrid” PTI regime installed by the Miltablishment has come a cropper. Unable to provide even a modicum of good governance, it has sought to entrench itself in unaccountable power by trying to decimate the opposition parties, erode media freedoms and curtail autonomous rights of state institutions like the ECP. Now it is faced with an economic crisis that is spiraling out of control and threatening to trigger riots on the streets.
Since this hybrid regime assumed office three years ago, the Pakistan rupee has been devalued significantly from about PKR 120 in 2018 to PKR 170 this week, fueling double digit inflation amidst prolonged Covid lockdowns, negative economic growth, rising unemployment and relative impoverishment. In the last month or so the Pakistani rupee has been devalued by 10% despite sale of billions of dollars out of forex reserves held by the State Bank of Pakistan. The trade deficit is yawning, the current account has become negative and debt payments of about $30 billion are due this year. Only the IMF and associated international financial institutions can bail out Pakistan. But they are holding back pending a green light from Washington which in turn is reviewing its options in West Asia ringed by its strategic “enemies” (China, Russia and Iran) and “double-dealing” Pakistan.
Buoyed by their success in local Cantonment Board elections, the opposition parties in the PDM are gearing up to protest across the length and breadth of the country. They may be joined by disgruntled lawyers, media persons and civil society groups. Meanwhile, the judiciary is coming under public pressure to stand up for fundamental rights and judicial independence. The Miltablishment is the only powerful institution propping up this regime. But it is under pressure at home and abroad to review the benefits of its friends and costs of its foes.
All indications are that the national security crisis of economy, governance and foreign policy is becoming unmanageable. But Miltablishment leaders seem unwilling to explore bold options.
In the last thirty days, the TTP-ISK-AQ-ETM sanctuaried in Afghanistan have killed over fifty Pakistani soldiers in borderland attacks. The TTP leader, Wali Mohammad, has publicly vowed to seize Pakistani territory. But the Afghan Taliban who owe their successful resistance and seizure of power to Pakistan are oblivious of their benefactors’ concerns and problems.
What if the international community decides to spurn Pakistan’s plea to recognize and bail out the Taliban regime in Kabul? Will Islamabad strike out on its own (or with China) and risk economic collapse and international isolation? Similar questions abound about the Miltablishment’s hard choices in domestic politics. Will it continue to support an unpopular and incompetent regime in the face of rising political and economic discontent that is undermining its credibility and authority to take decisive decisions on foreign and security policy?
Hard times are upon Pakistan. Realistic decisions are needed. No one at home and abroad is ready to buy our failed national policy prescriptions and international narratives.