Nearly five months after 9/11, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a news briefing remarked on the limitations of the intelligence reports: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The Margalla valley is filled with such known knowns, known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. In the wake of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Pakistan’s strategic schizophrenia has entered another unknown and unchartered territory.
Most pundits of the strategic community did not believe that the Americans would make a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. They thought that the US would very much like to stay in the neighborhood to keep an eye on Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The assumption was that even if US withdrew, it would want to keep most bases to maintain its oversight of our troubled region. Now that the opposite has happened, they are all in a state of shock and awe.
Meanwhile, in the midst of an economic meltdown, an IMF program in the doldrums and the FATF continuing to breath down our necks, Prime Minister Khan is aiming big, not only wanting to complete his tenure but also secure the next one. His only claim to current and future fame is that the miltablishment has not mended ties with any other power group in the country yet. He sincerely believes that since there is no Plan-B (that he knows of), so they are stuck with him, for better or worse.
Regardless of what PM Imran Khan – an unambiguous supporter of the new regime in Afghanistan – says about the Taliban, the miltablishment remains ambivalent about the developments next door. COAS General Bajwa reportedly told parliamentarians that the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani namesake were two sides of the same coin.
The Afghan Taliban are about to find out the hard way that bleeding an established state is easier than governing one. Now that the top leadership, which has either languished in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or Pakistan or lived underground, have different experiences than their fighting cadres, it is becoming clear as to how difficult it is to reconcile with the demands of governing the Afghan society that has changed in two decades under a western occupation. They are about to find out how difficult it is to meet the expectations of their constituency, their neighbors and the world at large.
We are just a day away from a complete US pullout from Afghanistan. Soon after that, the Taliban will roll out their governance calendar aimed at gaining international legitimacy and support from its neighbors. PM Imran Khan and his cabal of ministers have already begun urging the international community to help the incoming Kabul government.
Pakistan playing the pivot to solve the Afghan imbroglio is easier said than done. If Pakistan tries to woo the West to moderate the Afghan Taliban, the rank and file of the incoming Afghan government will lose the trust of its leadership, and Pakistan will lose the trust of Iran, Russia and China. If Pakistan plays the regional game, then it loses Western support at the IMF, World Bank, ADB and the frowning FATF. We are now between the rock and a hard place.
Worse, in the aftermath of the ascendency of the Afghan Taliban, homegrown extremist groups and mainstream religious political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI-F have been reenergized. The TTP has regrouped, recalibrated and relaunched their terror attacks, thanks to the National Action Plan now catching dust.
Pakistan has withstood the onslaught of the terror groups earlier due to the massive economic and technological support of the US and other Western countries, along with the quiet support of regional powers like China, Russia and Iran. This happened when we had relatively popular governments with legitimacy and support of the media and the civil society, something almost nonexistent now.
With new great games unfolding before us and a new cold war brewing, it will be extremely difficult for Pakistan to play both sides. All this is happening at a time when we have an extremely weak, unpopular, illegitimate government clinging to power only because it is pliant. The problem is that in the era of seismic shifts, weak and vulnerable dispensations will not be able to hold. They would either be replaced by a new order created through a genuine national reconciliation or it would be replaced by a completely authoritarian dispensation.
This is the stuff of dreams and nightmares in the Margalla valley.
The writer is a journalist and commentator based in Islamabad.