Pakistan’s policy towards the evolving situation in Afghanistan is informed by a basic dilemma: unlike in the 90s, Pakistan cannot (and does not) want to go against the regional and international consensus on what the de facto Taliban government must do to be engaged constructively by the world; on the other hand, it fears that if that engagement is inordinately withheld, it could delay the socioeconomic assistance Afghanistan urgently needs, leading to the worsening of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.
Pakistan also understands and supports the push for an inclusive political and constitutional compact as the Taliban move beyond the current interim set-up. This has been stated clearly by Pakistan at the highest levels of government, including, most recently, by Prime Minister Imran Khan in a BBC interview, which was aired on September 21. “If they do not include all the factions, sooner or later they will have a civil war,” he said, adding: “That would mean an unstable, chaotic Afghanistan and an ideal place for terrorists. That is a worry.” Equally, Pakistan has been pleading for patience. The world community has to give more time to the group to meet their promises.
There is also the problem of sequencing. The United States and its allies want the Taliban to immediately follow the West’s political and rights blueprint for Afghanistan before the Taliban government is accepted and the aid resumed. Pakistan, while stressing the importance of an inclusive political compact and the rights of women and minorities, has been pleading for de-linking immediate international assistance from other issues to avert the humanitarian crisis and its attendant consequences.
Pakistan’s policy makes eminent sense from its perspective. It wants the best equilibrium under the circumstances — i.e., to get the Taliban to move in the right direction while preventing humanitarian assistance and development aid from being hostage to other issues of concern. It has been consistent in arguing that a humanitarian crisis or an economic meltdown can lead to refugee outflow which would have negative consequences for Pakistan and other states bordering Afghanistan. Such a situation, far from incentivising the Taliban to follow international norms, could lead to their isolation and allow the hardline elements to get an upper hand. That would inevitably shrink the space for the moderate elements within the group, as also external actors, to influence Taliban behaviour.
Pakistan’s high-momentum regional and international diplomacy must be seen in view of the challenges and threats posed by an unstable Afghanistan. It must deal with and try to influence the behaviour of the Taliban; and it must do the same with extra-regional and regional state actors that have their own interests and want outcomes that serve those interests.
For Tajikistan, an inclusive political set-up has been a point of agitation with respect to representation of all ethnic groups, especially Tajiks who, as per a statement by Sirojiddin Muhriddin, the foreign minister of Tajikistan, “make up 46 percent of the population of [Afghanistan].” (This demographic percentage is erroneous but gives one an idea about Dushanbe’s concern for Tajiks.) Both Muhriddin and Tajikistan President, Emomoli Rahmon, have also been pressing the point about Panjshir with Rahmon calling for “speedy elimination of the conflict and tensions in the Panjshir province by declaring a ceasefire and opening roads for providing humanitarian assistance to the population of the region” during a joint presser with PM Khan in Dushanbe.
Iran took the same position during the Taliban offensive in Panjshir. In fact, its foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, as also its official spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spoke of ‘foreign intervention’, a misplaced reference to the propaganda that the Pakistani military was supporting the Taliban in their offensive. As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, “It would be naiveté at its most naive to think that Iran, at the highest official levels, can fall for [fake propaganda]. Corollary: these statements are a deliberate attempt to pressure Pakistan.” Iran has its influence among the Hazara, Tajiks and Farsiwan. Just like in the Middle East, Tehran wants to expand its footprint in Afghanistan. While it helped the Taliban tactically, it seeks to reap a strategic benefit out of that.
Uzbekistan is the natural fallback state for Uzbeks in Afghanistan. This is what I call the tyranny of geography. But while Tashkent desires Uzbek representation in a political set-up in Afghanistan, it has refrained from making statements that implicate Pakistan. After a meeting on September 16 between PM Khan and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, the Uzbekistan ministry of foreign affairs stated that the two leaders discussed “the situation in the region in the context of the current situation in Afghanistan. An agreement was reached to continue close cooperation on the issues of ensuring regional security.” President Mirziyoyev, in his recent speech at the UNGA, also said that, “During these challenging times, it is impossible to isolate Afghanistan and leave it within the range of its problems.” This position is in line with Pakistan’s.
Turkmenistan is another regional state which, because of its own interests involving energy and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, has accepted the ground reality in Afghanistan. Even before the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government, Turkmen diplomats were in contact with Taliban reps. As Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov has indicated, Turkmenistan has spent USD 1.25 billion on projects integrating Turkmenistan with Afghanistan. On August 18, the country’s foreign ministry stated that it was in regular communication with the Taliban authorities. The level of panic in Ashgabat is very low compared to other states bordering Afghanistan.
China, for its part, has consistently stated that it is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. It has talked about a constructive role for the United Nations and while urging all internal political actors in Afghanistan to find a peaceful settlement, Beijing has repeatedly made clear that it does not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
That said, Pakistan, China and Russia are closely cooperating on Afghanistan. The recent visit of the special representatives of the three countries to Afghanistan was reflective of that cooperation and a considered policy to reach out to the Taliban and stay engaged. A Russian foreign ministry statement said, “An agreement was reached to maintain constructive contacts in the interests of Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity, and regional stability and development,” adding that the Taliban have also stressed their special focus on improving relations with Russian, China and Pakistan.
Qatar is another state that has played a major role in advancing a settlement in Afghanistan. At the ongoing 76th session of the UNGA Qatar’s emir, Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, stressed continuing engagement with the Taliban, noting that a boycott would only lead to polarisation while dialogue could bring in positive results.
Now a word about rights, especially rights of women. In an ideal world, women in Afghanistan should have all the rights we associate with modern sensibility. While it is important to continue to push the envelope, the policymaker has to opt for the doable within a context rather than pushing for the desirable and ending up with nothing. Let’s look at it like this: is it more important to speak about the dress code or pushing the Taliban to accept that women must be educated and be part of the workforce? Clearly, for the policymaker, the latter is more important, given what she is dealing with on the ground. Equally, while it is important for the policymaker to contextualise a situation and accept a compromise, she must not give in on the absolute baseline. A baseline defence is important because any further progress has to depend on an acceptance by all sides of what that line is: the right to education and the right to work (including entrepreneurship) provide that baseline. And it must be zealously guarded and defended.
For the rest, as I have noted before in this space, inclusiveness is to be seen (a) in terms of power-sharing with other ethnic groups; (b) a compact that includes rural Afghanistan into any gains and subsumes local economies into the national chain; (c) takes into account the social and cultural aspects of Afghan societies (the plural is important because there is no one Afghan society).
From a political and security perspective, there are two primary concerns of regional and other state actors vis-a-vis Afghanistan: (a) the Afghan soil should not harbour transnational terrorist groups. This would assume effective state writ by whoever rules Afghanistan; (b) that country should have a viable economy and political stability to prevent refugee outflow.
That requires engagement, not cutting the Taliban loose. That’s what Pakistan’s regional and international diplomacy is aimed at.