The Rise of Taliban and
Pakistan’s Foreign Policy
The cross-border infiltration, repatriation of Afghan refugees, counterterrorism policy, harbouring of terrorist organizations and tariff and non-tariff barriers in bilateral and transit trade are some issues that have contributed to the trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan and marred the bilateral ties. The return of Taliban regime in Afghanistan did create some enthusiasm in security and political circles of Pakistan that these long-standing disputes could be resolved now and both states would embark on a journey of peaceful co-existence, non-interference in each other’s affairs and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. But till today, these hopes, aspirations, and wishes largely remain a pipe dream. Nonetheless, the presence of a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan does provide some opportunities that have been discussed below.
Throughout the War on Terror, the US-backed Kabul administration — first Hamid Karzai and the Ashraf Ghani — maintained close working relations with India which allowed the latter to manipulate the former’s signature political instability, weak writ of the state and social strife to further its strategic interests: destabilization of Pakistan through training, arming and financing anti-Pakistan terrorist organizations, particularly TTP and many ethno-nationalist Baloch outfits. This structural presence of India in war-torn Afghanistan resulted in unending terrorism inflicted by these organizations. In 2011, US Defence Secretary stirred up a storm by acknowledging that India was utilizing Afghanistan’s soil to fan terrorism in Pakistan. He commented: “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan in Afghanistan.” The emergence of the Taliban as ultimate power-holders in Kabul does serve the ultimate goal of Pakistan – denying India any strategic space in Afghanistan. The ouster of Ashraf Ghani administration and the meltdown of the Afghan National Army raised hope in Pakistan that India’s role in Afghanistan will gradually diminish. With the Taliban regime effectively consolidating its power, it now stands clear that India has effectively been pushed out of the game as it no longer wields any influence there. Pakistan’s leading role in the pre- and post-Taliban eras has ensured India ouster from the multilateral arrangement that is working for Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction and political stability. Whether it is the Extended Troika, which includes China, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, or Beijing and Moscow-led different initiatives, India is no more present in the equation.
Taliban’s rise has helped Pakistan emerge prominently on the international stage in efforts to tackle economic, humanitarian and political crises of Afghanistan. Close relations with Taliban leadership have given some leverage to Pakistan that the Foreign Office can employ to further other national interests. The significance of Pakistan in the resolution of the Afghan conundrum is evident from the fact that multiple US officials have explicitly acknowledged that they desire a key role of Pakistan in resolving the problems of the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. In the wake of the Extended Troika for Afghanistan meeting, held in China on March 31, 2022, the US State Department Spokesperson noted: all countries (Pakistan, China, Russia, and the US in particular) have a good degree of leverage with Taliban and Extended Troika has been a constructive forum in the past. He further added that the US interests were aligned with other members’ including Pakistan as well. Although Pak-US relations have hit a rock after the diplomatic cable issue that explicitly expressed displeasure over the policies of the PTI government, the very expression of the desire to have an active role of Pakistan in Afghanistan’s affairs speaks volumes about the important role of Pakistan.
During the tenure of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the government took various initiatives to shift the traditional diplomacy of Pakistan from a geostrategic approach to geoeconomic one. In realization of the fact that self-reliance and economic health is the bedrock of independent foreign policy, PM Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spotlighted on various occasions the paradigm shift in strategic thinking in Pakistan. For instance, while addressing the Foreign Services Probationers in December 2021, he remarked that it was the first time that Pakistan has reoriented the thrust of its diplomatic efforts towards economic benefits and prosperity. Pakistan Foreign Office instructed all its embassies abroad to systematically explore markets to end product and market concentrations of the country’s exports. Pakistan put in place, inter alia, Strategic Engagement Plan with European Union, Strategic Economic Framework with Turkey and Engage Africa Initiative to explore untapped markets. On the policy-formulation front, National Security Division, with an aim to codify these efforts, first organized the first Islamabad Security Dialogue that emphasized upon the economic security of Pakistan and later on, formally unveiled the first-ever National Security Policy document back in January 2022 to place economic security at the heart of national security. In this backdrop, the consolidation of the Taliban regime has given Pakistan a huge opportunity to execute this economic diplomacy.
The westward extension of CPEC is one such avenue that can be explored. Right after assuming power in August 2021, the Taliban wished to join CPEC and it was reciprocated warmly by Pakistan. Recently, China formally decided to invite Afghanistan to this infrastructure project. In his first visit to Afghanistan in March, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that Beijing welcomed Afghanistan’s active participation in Belt and Road Initiative and was willing to push for extending CPEC to Afghanistan to utilize this project as a conduit for regional connectivity. China has also shown interest in mineral development in Afghanistan and asked the regime not to allow terrorists on the Afghan soil. Pakistan Foreign Office along with other relevant departments must seize upon this opportunity and convince China to invest in Afghanistan as well. Increased Chinese presence in this region is best suited for regional peace and prosperity.
Having discussed some potential strategic advantages that Pakistan has reaped, or can extract, from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, there are some areas where the Taliban have yet to address Pakistan’s grievances. One such grievance is the recognition of the Durand Line – the boundary line between Pakistan and Afghanistan drawn in 1893. Even though this 2649km-long border is internationally recognized, Afghanistan’s rulers never accepted this and even claimed Kabul’s sovereignty down to the Indus River. Pakistan responded furiously and this issue further deteriorated when Islamabad decided to fence this largely porous border to stop the infiltration of illegal immigrants and cross-border movement of terrorists. Pakistan did hope that the Taliban would recognize this border and both sides would cooperate to put in place an effective border-management mechanism to regulate cross-border movement. But these high hopes hit a rock when the Taliban’s field commanders uprooted the fence from multiple locations and Taliban higher officials were reported showing concerns over the fencing of the Durand Line. Afghan Defence Ministry Spokesperson termed the erecting of fencing illegal. Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid also opposed the fencing of the border by saying: “The Afghans are unhappy and oppose the fencing. The fencing has separated the people and divided the families.” Although later on, in December 2021, both sides agreed that further fencing would be carried out through consensus, the Taliban have certainly not helped in settling this longstanding matter. It is also important to note that the Taliban refused to recognize Durand Line when they first came to power in 1996 and it is apparent now that they are in a mood to settle this dispute once and for all. Durand Line would continue to be an apple of discord between the two countries, and Pakistan Foreign Office would have to launch concerted efforts to resolve that.
It is an open secret now that previous US-backed administrations in Afghanistan patronized anti-Pakistan elements and provided safe sanctuaries and logistical support to them to carry out terrorist activities. Pakistan’s fiercest enemy – Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – was provided with an enabling environment to destabilize Pakistan. Despite the realization that TTP and Afghanistan have close ideological affiliation and they both cooperated in toppling the Kabul-based government, Pakistan’s security circles did hope that chronic issues of Afghanistan-backed terrorism would be resolved with the advent of the Taliban regime, but here again, the Taliban refused to honour their obligations. Contrary to the hopes, the Taliban’s takeover coincided with the steady rise in incidents of terrorism. Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies – an Islamabad-based think tank – reported in February 2022 that Pakistan witnessed a massive 42% rise in terror incidents in 2021 and a significant surge was reported after Kabul fell to the Taliban. When Pakistan pressed the Taliban to honour their commitment, they, instead of handing over TTP leadership, advised Pakistan to settle the issue through negotiations. Pakistan responded positively and the Afghan Taliban facilitated the peace talks. The ceasefire was announced, and some foot soldiers of TTP were also released, but TTP’s demands were so outrageous that the negotiations ultimately collapsed. Though there are some reports that Pakistani authorities are again using backdoor contacts to resume peace talks, there is an unlikelihood of any substantial outcome. In February this year, a report compiled by UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team revealed that there were some 3000 to 5000 TTP fighters in Afghanistan who maintained an active link with the Taliban government. The above discussion makes it clear that counter-terrorism cooperation, the foremost priority of Pakistan, would remain restricted due to the Taliban’s ideological association with TTP, and this issue would continue to erode trust in bilateral interactions, engagements and dialogues.
The sudden collapse of Ashraf Ghani administration and the meltdown of Afghan Army caught Pakistan off-guard. Pakistan always advocated pluralistic power-sharing in Afghanistan, but the Taliban’s military takeover and attendant diplomatic and economic isolation have effectively made the Taliban regime more of a burden than an asset for Islamabad. Pakistan should handle the Afghanistan issue cautiously, and policymakers should bear these recommendations in mind while policy formulation and implementation vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
In recognition of the grave situation there that can translate into the massive influx of Afghan refugees, Pakistan should continue to call for the removal of Western sanctions and the resumption of development aid for the reconstruction of war-torn country. Pakistan must employ all the tools it can mobilize – policy pronouncement and bilateral and multilateral interactions – to convince the world community that politically unstable, economically weak, and diplomatically isolated Afghanistan would remain a threat to international peace and security. On the other hand, Pakistan must leverage its influence over the Taliban to nudge them, via quiet diplomacy and public messaging, to meet international obligations of inviolability of human rights, particularly of women’s rights. Pakistan should make it clear to the Afghan Taliban that the stability and domestic legitimacy of their government rest on their ability to govern and respect human rights.
Pakistan should also resist the temptation to act as Taliban spokesperson on international platforms at the cost of equally important bilateral ties, including with the USA and EU. Pakistan FO has already dedicated a considerable amount of its human and organizational resources to raising the issues of Kashmir, growing radicalization in India, and other policy matters, and accomplishing the task of advocacy for recognition of the Taliban regime would further burden the already over-stretched resources. The provision of humanitarian aid should be within our reach and we should keep humanitarian air and road corridors open for UN agencies, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), and bilateral donors. This will project a positive image of Pakistan and, thus, we can add to that image to strengthen our position.
The security considerations and interests should reign supreme when we engage with Taliban officials. Pakistan’s political and military leadership must restrain from endorsing the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s rights as it could lead to shrinkage of space for us to engage in diplomatic manoeuvring for seeking ease in Western sanctions. This can also risk emboldening home-grown militants who espouse the same ideology as that of the Afghan Taliban. The recent incidents in Afghanistan, particularly draconian rule and treatment of women have made it clear that the Taliban are on the same trek that they had trodden in their earlier tenure. A host of other bilateral irritants has further demonstrated that Pakistan does not hold determinant influence over the Taliban. That realization should shape and direct the foreign policy of Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The sooner we realize this, the better it will be for the national security and integrity of Pakistan.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.
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