What does the future hold for Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries as the United States completes its troop withdrawal and the civil war continues to rage with full ferocity? With zero appetite for facing a replay of the past, Pakistan’s government and military have taken several preventive measures to mitigate the ill effects of the possible fallout. At a policy level, Pakistan’s military spokesperson has said it has no favourites in Afghanistan and it is for the Afghan people to decide their future. But Afghanistan is deeply mired in a civil war with the Taliban leadership and Ashraf Ghani holding diametrically opposite political views and with no consensus in sight the blow back on Pakistan is unavoidable. Besides, however genuine our intention to stay neutral in the Afghan imbroglio, which certainly is the best option in the present circumstances, there would be few takers as over the years we have been branded as the main supporters of the Taliban. Pakistan was one of the few and the first to recognise the Taliban government in the 1990s and with many of their leaders and families using Pakistan’s hospitality to stay in erstwhile FATA, our leverage indeed has been with them. True, the Taliban have now enough territory under their control and do not need support of the kind that they sought in the past. The irony is that the US ignored Afghanistan’s rural development and its role in the creation of the Taliban, and believed in the concept that whosoever is in power in Kabul would rule Afghanistan. This was an outdated perception as Afghanistan has changed over the years. As a wise move, the Taliban have also worked on non-Pashtuns — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks — and in many provinces have developed local alliances and even exploited rivalries.
The multiple dangers that lurk from instability in Afghanistan are not difficult to comprehend. Anticipating the pouring in of thousands of Afghan refugees, the army had constructed barbed wire fencing all along the border. Still the danger remains for it would be politically difficult to stop the influx as the same tribes live on both sides of the border with heavy interdependence.
There is a distinct possibility that taking advantage of confusion prevailing on the Afghan side of the border the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan that took refuge in Afghanistan, would try to infiltrate K-P and Balochistan and engage in terrorist activities. It is a strange paradox that the Taliban have co-existed with the TTP comfortably despite their anti-state activities against Pakistan.
Interestingly, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is very similar to that of the former Soviet Union as both powers were exasperated and unable to influence the outcome with the Taliban prevailing. It could, however, be presumed that the breakup of the USSR was accelerated as a consequence of its involvement in Afghanistan.
A US general, in a recent interview, predicted that Afghanistan will face a full-scale war, an assessment shared by many seasoned military analysts as district after district falls in the hands of the Taliban. Anticipating the outcome of the present conflict, the Russian and Chinese governments have been dealing with the Taliban leadership in Doha. These countries have foremost interest in the stability of Afghanistan as its adverse effects would impact their security, and could encourage the Muslim minorities to step up their resistance against the government in China. The Russian government is equally concerned that it could have a ripple effect on the Muslim minorities. Iran too is taking effective measures to safeguard against the spillover of the Afghan civil war. Apparently, as in the past, Iran would keep the refugees in camps close to the border.
President Ghani’s plea that the Taliban talk to them is going unheeded. Although, as the Afghan president maintains that the Taliban will have to eventually engage with the major political forces. Merely relying on the brute force to establish their writ will lead to the perpetuation of the civil war. Whereas the Taliban are positioning themselves for a dominant place and then are likely to engage with the major political forces. The Taliban have assured the US that they will not attack the coalition forces while they are withdrawing and so far, have been strictly adhering to it. The Taliban have given a firm commitment to the US that they will not host Al Qaeda and were reminded that the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban government was for this very reason that they allowed OBL to take refuge and operate from Afghanistan. Despite the assurance, the US will keep a close watch on the possible re-emergence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, and would posture itself so that it could respond if the threat emerges.
The general perception that Pakistan has considerable influence over the Taliban leadership is somewhat exaggerated. What perhaps is closer to reality is best encapsulated in the wise remark of former COAS General Kayani that, “we have the influence but not the control over Taliban”. However, as the Taliban gain more control over Afghanistan, they will acquire greater confidence in dealing with the outside world.
As the Taliban are the dominant player and claim to be in control of 85% of the territory, it is only logical that Pakistan and neighbouring countries deal with them as a matter of self-interest, even if formal recognition is not forthcoming. The Afghan Taliban are the most reliable pro-Pakistan elements in a fractured Afghan society. Moreover, the Taliban were the only force that was able to counter the heavy Indian influence in Kabul. Not surprising though is that India is finding it difficult to adjust to the rising power of the Taliban. It would however be in the interest of Afghanistan and regional countries that the Taliban co-opt different ethnic and major political groups to bring stability to their regime.
But as the situation exists, the Afghan conflict will not end soon and will continue to pose security and economic challenges for Pakistan. But by pursuing the right policies and facilitating people-to-people relations, the bonds can be strengthened.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2021.
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