Ayesha Siddiqa on Afghanistan

Islamabad has a problem. Taliban won’t tone down now – in Afghanistan or Pakistan

New or old, Pakistan has bit off more than it can chew with Afghanistan. And China is watching.

Ayesha Siddiqa

AYESHA SIDDIQA 27 August, 2021 8:31 am IST

The Print

Representational Image | Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (middle) during a press conference in Afghanistan, on 17 August 2021 | Twitter/@paykhar
Representational Image | Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (middle) during a press conference in Afghanistan, on 17 August 2021 | Twitter/@paykhar

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The US is out of Kabul and the Taliban are in. Afghanistan awaits a reset of direction. The Taliban are aiming for power and influence to make the interim setup that will then form the next Afghanistan government. Surely but sadly, Pakistan sits at the heart of the herculean process of government-building in Afghanistan and its acceptance by the international community.

Sources say that in a private gathering of retired generals, journalists and diplomats, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said that he was not in a hurry to recognise a Taliban-led regime until it’s done by the international community or at least by some select States. The problem is that, thus far, all significant States including the Central Asian republics are not feeling confident to recognise the Taliban. He also spoke about his apprehension that Pakistan may be targeted by the US and slapped with sanctions, which he is ready for. The last bit of the statement is incorrect because Pakistan needs funds more than the Taliban. Pakistan is more of a State than a Taliban-led Afghanistan. It will be a struggle for Islamabad to help Afghanistan get on its feet, even if it feels that the Taliban are a transformed entity and not the same as 1990s.

Pakistan’s plan

Despite Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir’s claim that people in Pakistan are not celebrating the Taliban victory, there is much excitement at different levels for various reasons. Broadly, there is an acceptance of the power shift next door. There is either a weariness with the Afghan war, which is keeping men on the street, especially in the tribal areas, quiet, or there is a silent acceptance of change driven by a deep-set suspicion of the West.

The Pakistani military establishment floats in the middle – trying to balance their excitement on getting rid of the Ashraf Ghani government, and deep thoughts of how to engage the world in accepting the new political formula and make it work to Pakistan’s advantage. The Taliban victory, which did not seem likely six months ago, reminded Islamabad’s special envoy to Afghanistan Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s saying: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” However, the issue with decades concentrating in a few weeks is that there is a lot to handle. Pakistan definitely has a lot on its plate varying from regional and global reaction to Afghanistan and managing the domestic impact.

There is no point hiding the reality that Islamabad expected and desired this change. According to Iranian-American author Vali Nasr, former army chief Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiyani warned Washington about not prolonging its stay in Afghanistan. Since Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military echelons knew that the US would leave and wanted to accelerate the departure. With this understanding, Rawalpindi invested primarily in the Taliban. Rawalpindi’s desire was to ensure a friendly establishment in its northwestern neighbouring nation, which doesn’t get exploited against Pakistan’s interests, especially by India. The former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg further explained the notorious concept of ‘strategic depth’ in his latest book Compulsions of Power to mean creating a grouping of States that would have a joint cultural and strategic ethos – meaning Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

But the Taliban back in Kabul is not as easy as it sounds.

All’s not well for Pakistan

Policymakers in Islamabad have three broad issues to think about.

First, how to develop international legitimacy for the new Afghan government. Rawalpindi wants the world to accept that business can be done with the Taliban. This means building a new image that is different from the 1990s. The Taliban have been signaling to women that they will have the liberty to work and get education provided they stick to basic norms of sharia. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently announced that the media was free to work and that they will remove their fighters from near media offices. This statement is a reminder of similar assurances about media freedom by Pakistan’s generals, which makes one realise the effort afoot to make a Taliban-led regime look increasingly like Pakistan (or even India): Hybrid-authoritarian and hybrid-theocratic. Despite the propaganda, the Taliban’s behaviour, thus far, is not generating trust.

Second, the Taliban may not return to their sharia governance of the 1990s, at least not across Afghanistan, to gain the legitimacy necessary to acquire resources from abroad. The Taliban may be old, but the expectation of the ordinary Afghan for a workable State structure is new. A post-9/11 political system, though artificial, was run through international financial aid. Over years, people got used to it and would want basic needs to be met. It’s no longer just about Taliban using drug money to survive, but about feeding the people for which international cooperation is necessary. Kabul will have to behave itself and engage with global players to get Washington to release $9 billion.

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