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Moment of truth for Pakistan’s marriage of convenience with Afghan Taliban

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
September 26, 2021


With accusations made against Pakistan with regard to the Taliban’s resurgence, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the Taliban government to be inclusive and respect human rights during an interview with the BBC this week.

Pakistan’s historical and paradoxical relationship with the Taliban dates back to the 1990s, when it helped the Islamist militia rise from the ashes of a bloody civil war following the Soviet Union’s departure. In a marriage of convenience, Pakistan provided sanctuary to Afghan Taliban leaders as the group served Pakistan’s regional security interests. After the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, Pakistan appeared to face an American ultimatum to join the global “war on terror” or, in the words of then-president Pervez Musharraf, “be bombed back to the Stone Age”. In exchange for military and financial aid worth billions, Pakistan switched to Washington’s side.

More than 80,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed in the “war on terror” while Pakistan’s economy has lost around US$126 billion, making Washington’s US$6 billion in aid a pittance compared to what the country has gone through. Between 1995 and 2020, Pakistan experienced hundreds of terrorist attacks.

Hence, the Taliban’s resurgence is being taken with a pinch of salt by Pakistan, whose armed forces led operations to curtail the menace of the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Now, amid the chaos and confusion, a rare chance for redemption has emerged for Pakistan, which could either continue its dubious role in Afghanistan or leverage its influence with the Taliban to secure lasting peace in the region and support Afghanistan’s integration into the international community.

Pakistan, particularly its military intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), holds significant influence over the Taliban. This is evident by the highly publicised visit to Kabul by ISI chief Faiz Hameed.

Pakistan facilitated the Taliban’s participation in the 2020 peace talks with the US in Doha. The newly evolved Taliban owes much to Pakistan’s good offices and support.

US suspicion of Pakistan has kept President Joe Biden from speaking to Khan. India prevented Pakistan from speaking at the UN Security Council meeting on August 6, where Pakistan faced allegations of allowing terrorist groups to operate in its territory with impunity.

Shunning Pakistan would be counterproductive, given its leverage on Afghanistan. It would be pragmatic to acknowledge the positive role Islamabad can play as a mediator. In a similar vein, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke about Pakistan being a vital partner on Afghanistan during his visit to Islamabad.

The geopolitical map of Asia is being redrafted, with China and Russia becoming more influential and a new phase of regional rivalry in the offing. Having offered recognition and financial aid to the Taliban in return for security against Uygur separatists, China holds a trump card.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has declared Beijing a “welcome friend”. Any potential China-Pakistan-Taliban alliance would be unnerving to Pakistan’s regional rival India.

Pakistan has the closest ties with the Taliban, and how it chooses to proceed will have a significant bearing on the country’s international standing. While expressing support to initiatives for Afghan reconciliation and peace, Pakistan will be judged more by its actions than its words.

If civil unrest in Afghanistan swells, Pakistan’s claims of supporting peacemaking are unlikely to be taken seriously. This could have serious socioeconomic implications for the region, including Pakistan which already hosts more than 3 million Afghan refugees.

By being an honest mediator, Pakistan can rise to the occasion and play a constructive role in establishing lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. Rather than engaging in proxy activities and viewing its security interest predominantly through the prism of its rivalry with India, Pakistan has an opportunity to act in the interests of the wider region.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation provides Pakistan with an excellent opportunity. Islamabad can demonstrate regional leadership by convening top officials from eight neighbouring countries, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for a meeting with the new Afghan leaders. This would be a positive step towards regional peace and security, and the socioeconomic aspirations of a region that features a quarter of the global population and one-third of the world’s poor.

The Taliban’s quest for international recognition and development aid could be leveraged by Pakistan to coax the Islamist group into mainstream international forums like the United Nations and the international community. Such engagements would have a better chance of tempering its extremist ideology than constant vilification.

Socioeconomic pragmatism and engagement with multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank can pave the way for Afghan women to play a meaningful role in the reconstruction efforts.

It is imperative for Pakistan to tread carefully in the delicate power balance within the fragmented Afghan society by engaging with leaders from all tribes and political factions. Discord over power-sharing could again spark internal political conflict, with consequences spilling over into Pakistan, South Asia and beyond.

Pakistan’s future depends on what it chooses to prioritise. It can show statesmanship in a complex situation that demands the best of its diplomatic skills, or it can pursue narrow security and geopolitical interests that might help in the short term but would hurt more in the long run, as history’s Afghanistan chapter teaches us.

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