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Don’t Assume a Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan Means Smooth Sailing for Pakistan

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Don’t Assume a Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan Means Smooth Sailing for Pakistan

Already, there are worrying signs that the Taliban are inclined to ignore Islamabad’s most pressing concerns.

Don’t Assume a Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan Means Smooth Sailing for Pakistan

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, right, and Taliban fighters stand guard on their respective sides at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Torkham, in Khyber district, Pakistan, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

With the withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition forces from Afghanistan and reclamation of political power by the Afghan Taliban, countries in the region are shifting to respond to the emerging scenarios. For nearby countries like China, Russia, the Central Asian republics, India, and Pakistan, the political, economic, and security stakes in Afghanistan remain high. To Afghanistan’s east, Pakistan has been preparing to cope with the changing political and security dynamics in Afghanistan, and whatever may follow in the future. From pressing for a politically inclusive settlement to evacuations and delivery of medical supplies, Islamabad is trying to keep its position in Afghanistan strong.

As simple as it may sound, engaging with the Taliban will not be an easy affair for Islamabad. Contrary to the general belief that Islamabad exercises considerable leverage over the Afghan Taliban, the coming days may reveal the limitations of Pakistan’s influence. The Taliban of today possess a renewed vigor. The group has emerged as a dominant political force in Afghanistan, poised to assume the reins of government. The United States’ direct talks with the Taliban, resulting in a U.S. withdrawal, and the unexpectedly quick fall of Kabul have bolstered the Taliban’s image as victors in a war against a mighty superpower. Moreover, the world’s major powers, European states, and the world at large, have developed the uneasy understanding that Taliban are a political reality in Afghanistan. Hence, the Taliban’s power quotient, domestically and internationally, has considerably risen since the last time they were in power. Pakistan is no longer their only option for international support.

Even during the last period of Taliban rule, Pakistan’s leverage over the Afghan Taliban was overestimated. Pakistan remained unable to exercise its leverage on the issue of Durand Line, which is a key national security concern for Islamabad. During the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, Pakistan was unable to pressure the Taliban into observing human rights. These examples are telling of the limits of Pakistan’s leverage over the Afghan Taliban.

Most recently, three incidents particularly raise concerns over how Pakistan’s engagement with the Afghan Taliban will evolve. First, the Taliban freed Pul-e-Charkhi prisoners which included a senior TTP commander Maulvi Faqir Muhammad. Second is the Afghan Taliban’s display of discontent over the fencing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And third are the Afghan Taliban’s claim that the issue of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has to be dealt by Pakistan, and not Afghanistan, though Islamabad has long complained that TTP militants find safe harbor across the border.

Pakistan is closely following the developments in Afghanistan. This focus on Afghanistan stems from the idea that any untoward development in Afghanistan will have a direct and impactful bearing on Pakistan. To put this into perspective: Pakistan lost over 80,000 lives and suffered over $150 billion worth of economic losses owing to the global war on terror in Afghanistan. Therefore, for Pakistan, a politically negotiated settlement is the only viable way to stability in Afghanistan. This policy orientation hinges on Pakistan’s desire for a stable Afghanistan — one without the internecine power struggles that provide operational spaces for militant groups. In tandem, Pakistan sees engagement with Afghanistan as a bedrock for encouraging the Afghan Taliban to conduct themselves responsibly in world politics.

Pakistan’s concerns help explain its actions since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. From August 14 to August 28, Pakistan had evacuated more than 7,000 foreigners from Afghanistan, via some 400 special flights. Pakistan International Airlines was the first airline to carry medical supplies to Afghanistan on August 30. The plane flew from Dubai to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, carrying 12.5 tonnes of supplies.

Pakistan is engaging with the Afghan Taliban, but this engagement should be cautiously delimited by Pakistan’s prime national security interests. Anti-Pakistan militancy is the primary concern. Apart from the threat of militancy, three other major issues should form the basis of Pakistan’s security calculus vis-a-vis Afghanistan: mutual border management, repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, and an earnest commitment by the Taliban government to human rights. In particular, anything less than the Afghan Taliban’s active role in taking on anti-Pakistan militants operating on Afghan soil and mutual border management should be unacceptable to Pakistan.

Pakistan has long pressed the Afghan Taliban to crack down on TTP and Islamic State Khorasan (ISK, also referred to as ISIS-K). While the Taliban are fighting against ISK, they have not taken decisive action against the TTP. On the issue of the TTP, while speaking on a talk show on August 29, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said; “The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan.”  That is a worrying sign of the Afghan Taliban’s interest in tackling the issue. Hence, how the TTP question will develop Pakistan remains to be seen. In particular, Islamabad must press the issue of TTP leadership residing in Afghanistan.

Pakistan considers border management critical for beefing up its security against terrorist infiltration, terror attacks, and illegal border transgressions from Afghanistan. Historically, management of the border has remained a contentious issue owing to Afghanistan’s refusal to recognize the Durand line. In fact, contesting the legality of the Durand line as an international boundary can be considered as one of the few issues that unites the differing Afghan political factions. While Pakistan has unilaterally fenced around 90 percent of the border, it must continue to pressure Afghanistan to initiate border patrolling at the Afghan side. To give perspective, attacks against Pakistani forces along the border have continued even after Kabul’s fall to the Taliban.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan’s commitment to human rights can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Currently, Pakistan is hosting over 4 million Afghan refugees (around 90 percent of the total Afghan diaspora). So far, Pakistan has not registered any new incoming refugees. However, this should not dilute Islamabad’s concerns over the issue of refugees. In this regard, Islamabad will need meaningful engagement with the Taliban, prioritizing the facilitation of a formal repatriation of Afghan refugees. The Taliban should also be pushed to forge a domestic environment that is conducive to refugee repatriation.

The issue of human rights under Taliban rule generally gains the most traction in external audiences. While the Afghan Taliban are notorious for their human rights violations, we should not forget that Afghanistan’s human rights crisis has continued even under other governments. To put this into perspective, a 2013 report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada revealed how gross human rights violations by the power elites remained a characteristic feature of Afghan society even under the U.S.-backed government. However, fears over an escalation of human rights violations under the Taliban rule are justified due to the group’s history. Human rights violations should be condemned irrespective of who is in power; for Pakistan, there is also the practical concern that abuses in Afghanistan will translate into an expanding refugee crisis.

In terms of geoeconomics, which is the overarching theme of Islamabad’s foreign policy currently, Afghanistan remains vital for Pakistan. Historically, policymakers in Pakistan had largely viewed Afghanistan through a geostrategic lens. While Pakistan may seek to approach Afghanistan with a multidimensional, economically-driven approach in the longer run, the overriding focus on security cannot be overcome unless these issues are addressed. Hence, more than anything, political stability in Afghanistan remains paramount for Pakistan.

As of now, Pakistan is trying to secure its interests in Afghanistan, while remaining in step with the international community. As a first step, Pakistan decided to await other countries’ recognition of the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan and refrained from recognizing it right away. This posture could be understood as Pakistan’s diplomatic move to remind the Taliban that Pakistan is not an unconditional backer; a give-and-take will form the basis of Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban.

Islamabad’s Afghan policy needs to be prepared for many topsy-turvy developments. It is still highly uncertain if the Taliban will establish an all-inclusive government by peaceful negotiation or consolidate their control through military might. Other unanswered questions include the extent of political and military resistance to the Taliban, how far the new government will decentralize and devolve power to local authorities, and much more.

Afghanistan’s stability is the most desirable scenario for Pakistan. Like any other country, national security imperatives are and shall remain foremost for Pakistan. However, the resources that Pakistan has at its disposal, including its much-hyped influence over the Taliban, are limited. Pakistan may seek to be a partner in peace, but the responsibility of ensuring a peaceful Afghanistan lies on the bigger players. Stability in Afghanistan has to qualify as a concern for the international community at large. Multilateralism was not an option after the Soviet Army withdrew; it must be the choice following the U.S. withdrawal.