There is considerable uncertainty about the shape politics in Afghanistan will take as the Americans begin to withdraw their troops from the country. This is a different situation from the one the country faced when the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989. Then there was no constitutional order available. The seven mujahideen groups who had pushed out the Soviet forces couldn’t agree on the governing framework within which they should operate. This time the country has a Constitution even though it has not brought political stability to the country. How will an unstable Afghanistan affect Pakistan?
There are some in Washington who are of the view that Pakistan is not particularly keen to see Afghanistan settle down. Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington talked to Pamela Constable of The Washington Postwho had lived and reported from both Islamabad and Kabul. “As a nation, Pakistan is better off with its Afghan neighbour in peace,” he said. “But Islamabad would derive strategic benefits from an Afghanistan that remains at war, because its Taliban partner only gets stronger and India’s ability to operate there is diminished.” Kugelman and other so-called “Pakistan experts” were of the view that Islamabad stands to benefit from the turmoil in its neighbouring country. It sees the Taliban as a more reliable ally than the factious Afghan political elite and still see India as a mortal enemy it can never trust. I call the experts “so-called” since scholarship focused on Pakistan has suffered a serious decline in quality in the United States, in particular in the Washington area.
The leadership in the government headed by Prime Minisiter Imran took strong exception to this interpretation of Islamabad’s interest. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also spoke with Constable and told her that “it was in Pakistan’s self-interest to see peace and stability come to Afghanistan. We have no favourites” in the planned power-sharing dialogue among Afghan groups, he told her. “We have no desire to interfere, and we have no other agenda. We will work with whatever arrangements the talk produce.” The Kugelman-type of interpretation of Pakistan’s perceived interests was to keep on looking at Islamabad from the lenses of the 1980s and 1990s. At that time Pakistan promoted the Taliban as a group that could bring peace to a country which had been engaged in a highly destructive civil war among the groups that had worked hard to push the troops of the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Despite their past encouragement of the Taliban movement, authorities in Islamabad share Afghan worries whether the insurgent group has changed enough and become sufficiently tolerant of beliefs different from theirs. That would be essential for them to participate effectively in governing a country that is relatively more modern following two decades of democratic rule and Western influence. The members of the Afghan diaspora that have been involved in governing what was once their homeland are determined not to see it slip back. This is the case in particular about the way the government and the citizenry treat women. However, the Taliban insist that the future government be fully Islamic and the Constitution written in Bonn, Germany in 2002, should be thrown out. On the role of women in the Afghan society, they insist that that should be only within Islamic framework.
Since a number of significant changes are set to occur in the next few days, weeks, and months, policymakers in Pakistan should prepare for the worst. The worst is not hard to imagine. It would pay to figure it out and work with all those interested in Afghanistan’s future. The country faces a number of seemingly intractable problems that require strong leadership working out of Kabul. The first is the serious ethnic divide. In the northeast and in the north, the Tajik and Uzbek communities have numbers that match those of the Pakhtuns in the south. When Afghanistan was a monarchy from the 1920s to 1978, the kings gave a lot of space for governance to the tribal chiefs that dominated the areas. However, the Constitution agreed to by the Western powers working with a small number of Afghans created a highly centralised state with most of the power in the hands of an elected president. The Americans who had invaded the country and used the Tajiks to move the Taliban out of Kabul did not think beyond the presidential form of government they had introduced in their own country. As was the case in the US, the president was to be the chief executive who would be elected at regular intervals. In their case, the presidential term was for four years; for Afghanistan the term was for five years. In both cases, the president was allowed only two terms.
The system devised at Bonn did not work in a society as ethnically divided as Afghanistan’s. One important feature of a political system based on recurrent elections is that the citizens who have voted accept the results. Afghanistan has held four presidential elections — in 2004, 2009, 2013, and 2019. The result of only the first was accepted; the remaining three were contested by the losers. What made this situation particularly hazardous was that the spilt between the losers and the winners was on ethnic grounds. Most recently, the election has led to the formation of two rival governments, one headed by a Pakhtun (Ashraf Ghani) and the other by a half Tajik (Abdullah Abdullah, whose mother is Tajik). Could this be the first step towards the country splitting on ethnic grounds?
The second issue concerns the status of women in the Afghan society. The Taliban has already announced that they will not treat women as equal to men. Drawing inspiration from Saudi Arabia, they interpret Islam as allowing at best a secondary status to women. However, after two decades of Western-style democracy that brought women out in the public space, it would be difficult to push them back.
The third problem American withdrawal will pose is an economic one. Since 2002, the Afghan government has lived on Western largesse. Most of the funding needed by the public sector for maintaining a large security force and providing social services came from the US and its Western allies. With the Americans gone, it is unlikely that there will be a significant resource flow from Washington to Kabul. With the central government financially constrained the services people expect from the government would not be easily available. This will drive large numbers of people into the Taliban camp.
All these outcomes will have serious and mostly unpleasant consequences for Pakistan. Islamabad needs to begin to prepare itself for these developments. One immediate consequence would be the arrival of large numbers of new refugees from Afghanistan. Another would be the pickup in drug trade as the insurgents will turn to poppy cultivation and production of poppy-based drugs to finance their activities.