American pragmatism in foreign policy is exemplary in the world of international politics. The US foreign policy establishment sometimes goes against the grain of their ostensible policy objectives and inclinations. For instance, after India committed the ultimate sin of exploding nuclear bombs in May 1998 and thus crossed the international non-proliferation rules set by the United States, it appeared that the two countries’ paths had diverged decisively. Within months, the then Clinton Administration started wooing New Delhi and its subsequent journey to the point of civil nuclear deals between Washington and New Delhi was a story of the pragmatism of US foreign-policy-making institutions and leadership.
Consider another example of this pragmatism. There was a point in the post-2010 years when US security apparatus was convinced that Pakistani military and intelligence services were working against Washington’s interests in Afghanistan via intelligence assistance and providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. But not for a day did the US administration allow its military and security institutions to discontinue their close cooperation and interaction with the Pakistani military establishment. That the US continued close cooperation with the Pakistani military and intelligence services was another story of the pragmatism of US foreign policy establishment in conducting diplomacy in our region.
In the first story of pragmatism above, there was a strong non-proliferation lobby in Washington advocating punishment for New Delhi. In the second story of pragmatism, there was a whole network of lobbies and powerful US media suggesting strong action against the Pakistani security establishment for their support of the Taliban. In both cases, successive US administrations ignored powerful lobbies and continued to interact with important and crucial players in South Asia, keeping in view the larger foreign policy interests as defined by US foreign policy establishment: Firstly, in the case of India, these were that India was the largest democracy and largest economic market in South Asia, a key counterweight to China. In the case of Pakistan, the Pakistan military was perceived as a larger stabilising force in the region with its pro-American military leadership that is immersed in Westernised political values and interests.
The reason I made this point at the start of this piece is to put forward my point that it is only a matter of time before Washington and its key allies will come to the point where they will start making efforts to establish working relations with the Taliban regime in Kabul. American pragmatism will bring them to this point.
Two factors will facilitate Washington’s possible drift towards a pragmatic policy towards the Taliban. Firstly, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in July this year meant that this was the first time in more than two decades that the US would not have any kind of military presence in the region, starting from the shores of the Indian Ocean and up to the steppes of Central Asia. Pakistan reportedly denied bases to the US military in the wake of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. China and Russia are opposing tooth and nail the re-establishment of US bases in Central Asia. Secondly, US officials have been hinting at the possibility of resumption of counter-terrorism strikes in Afghanistan to check the re-emergence of Sunni extremism and militant groups in Afghanistan.
Here again, the US would have to pick from the two available policy choices emanating from New Delhi and Islamabad. Now, Islamabad seems to be selling the perception that the Taliban could be trusted partners in the fight against Sunni militancy in the region. New Delhi is advocating the very opposite. The latest of its efforts is the nine-member conference on Afghanistan in New Delhi, reported as follows:
“India on Wednesday hosted a regional summit to discuss the ongoing situation in neighbouring Afghanistan following the fall of the democratically-elected government and the subsequent Taliban takeover of the country. The conference is being chaired by India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and his counterparts from Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are at the attendance.”
Not surprisingly, these are the same countries which attended a security conference of regional intelligence chiefs in Islamabad. Pakistani Intelligence Chief Lt General Faiz Hameed hosted the conference in which the regional implications of the Taliban takeover of Kabul were discussed. It was agreed that the security apparatus of these seven regional countries would provide timely intelligence information to the Taliban regime so that it could take control of Afghanistan and would not allow violence to spill over into neighbouring countries. The perception was that the Taliban could act as a bulwark against more radical Sunni militant groups that were gaining a toehold in Afghanistan’s northern and eastern parts. Obviously, the source of this perception was the Pakistani security apparatus which had clear inclinations in support of the Taliban regime.
Now it seems that these regional countries don’t completely agree with this perception or that they don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket. The Taliban movement itself is a source of threat and it could not be relied upon as a trusted ally against more radical Sunni groups. Such is the message coming out of New Delhi. Indian officials met Central Asian officials in New Delhi on the sidelines of this conference and later the Indian media reported that there was significant convergence of threat perceptions as far as Afghanistan was concerned.
For American pragmatism to become operational there is a strong requirement that the Taliban regime persists and survives. In this situation survival would mean two things: firstly they should be able to ensure that they succeed in containing and controlling the violence within their borders and should not allow it to spill over into neighbouring countries. This seems an unlikely outcome on account of the complete lack of capacity and expertise on the part of the Taliban to technically tackle the violence as a national government. Secondly, international experts are predicting a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan—food shortages and Covid spread— and mass exodus of the population out of the country. Both these situations will generate social, political and military pressures which an inexperienced Taliban regime is unlikely to survive.
But suppose they do, after all, survive? In that case, we may see American traditional pragmatism forcing the Biden regime to establish working relations with Kabul.
Whatever the case may be, for Pakistan, the Taliban will continue to pose a deadly political problem—that is defined by a lethal internal security threat and cultural influence which can push our society into a Dark Age of its own.