Will Pakistan’s image change after it was proven right about Afghanistan?
The collapse of the Ghani Government and its replacement by an interim administration partially comprised of Taliban representatives shows that Pakistan was right about Afghanistan all along. The only solution was a political one which incorporated a leading role for the Taliban as legitimate stakeholders in that conflict’s outcome. The Ghani Government, propped up by American airpower, wasn’t going to last long once the US pulled out its forces. The former leader was very unpopular in the rural areas and should have seriously considered resigning upon the commencement of the Taliban’s ultimately successful nationwide offensive earlier this summer once they demanded that he step down as a precondition for peace.
In the run-up to these recent dramatic developments, the Taliban completed its evolution from an internationally recognised terrorist group to a government-in-waiting. It cut ties with foreign terrorists as part of the February 2020 peace deal with the US, but even before that, it was already dispatching diplomatic delegates to capitals as far as Beijing and Moscow for peace talks after those Great Powers saw the writing on the wall and realised the wisdom of Islamabad’s consistently proposed solution to the conflict. Washington caught up too late to make much of a difference otherwise it would have pressured Ghani to resign before the US’ retreat turned into the unprecedented embarrassment that it presently is.
Now that Pakistan’s been proven right about Afghanistan, the question naturally becomes one of whether international perceptions about it will shift in a positive direction. No influential forces consider the Taliban to be a terrorist group any longer even if it’s still formally designated as such. The Ghani Government showed what a paper tiger it was all along after collapsing so rapidly in the face of the Taliban’s nationwide advance over the past two weeks, the latter of which was mostly peaceful and carried out through negotiations that usually resulted in large-scale surrenders. Few were willing to die for an unpopular puppet government that was responsible for unnecessarily prolonging the war when it became clear that it was already over long ago.
Out of all the foreign stakeholders in the conflict, Pakistan was always the top one and the party which played the greatest role in advancing its envisioned peaceful solution to the war. Far from being a so-called “isolated, rogue” state like some of its opponents falsely claimed for so long, Pakistan proved itself to be the exact opposite. It was the most important player in the Afghan peace process whose diplomatic services were sought out by the US and its Chinese & Russian rivals, remained committed to the UN Charter’s peaceful goals, and ultimately succeeded in implementing its consistent vision for ending the Afghan War through a political settlement that included a leading role for the Taliban.
Now’s Pakistan’s time to shine, and its supporters should remind the world just how wrong their opponents were about it. The country can make up for decades’ worth of lost time in reshaping international perceptions if it properly takes advantage of this chance. It must confidently articulate its geo-economic vision for the region and the role that post-war Afghanistan is expected to play through PAKAFUZ, which refers to February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan railway for connecting Central & South Asia. Additionally, Pakistan should also begin organizing an international conference for redirecting the focus of Afghanistan’s foreign stakeholders from the diplomatic realm to the economic one in order to rebuild the country.
Even if these efforts succeed, they’ll remain incomplete without the soft power infrastructure to sustain them. Despite being one of the world’s few nuclear powers, having one of its most powerful militaries, being one of the most populous countries on the planet, and having seemingly limitless economic potential through CPEC+, Pakistan lacks an international media outlet comparable to Al Jazeera, the BBC, CGTN, CNN, or RT. Its views on everything are filtered through foreign platforms and few ever take the extra step needed to seek out its own ones for clarification. With South Asia more important than ever after the end of the Afghan War and the beginning of trans-regional connectivity initiatives with Central Asia, now’s the time to address this shortcoming.
It’s therefore incumbent upon those with the relevant responsibilities to immediately begin brainstorming solutions to this problem, ideally with input from civil society figures involved in the soft power sphere, members of the think tank community, and foreign experts who are friendly towards Pakistan. This should be considered an urgent priority of national importance otherwise the country risks losing this window of opportunity and the culture of complacency returns whereby Pakistan once again reconciles itself with letting others filter its views on everything. Pakistan will never be taken seriously as a rising power unless it has its own international soft power infrastructure just like its peers do, and now’s the time to finally make progress on this.