After the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, Pakistan’s policy on its western neighbour may undergo significant changes, particularly when Prime Minister Imran Khan seems serious to mend old ways of dealing with the war-ravaged country.
After the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 14, without any resistance from the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), the entire Afghanistan is now under the belt of the once insurgent movement. Only a small Afghan area, the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, is outside the virtual control of the Taliban. In the situation, Pakistan is well-poised to extend recognition to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. If Pakistan does so, there would be no surprise because Islamabad has been the main supporting force behind the Taliban in the last 20 years of resistance against the United States-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of which North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the dominant part. So rationally speaking, if Pakistan today extends diplomatic recognition to the Taliban control in Afghanistan, it would go a long way in legitimizing their rule in the war-devastated country. However, Pakistan even before the Taliban’s control of Kabul had declared that it would not recognise a government that takes power by force of arms in Afghanistan. Moreover, if the Taliban forced their entry into Kabul, Pakistan had announced that it would close its borders with Afghanistan. Now an important development in the meanwhile occurred in Afghanistan. The Taliban did take control of Kabul but it was not by letting anybody’s blood. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, after welcoming the Taliban, immediately left Kabul while the Afghan forces refused to fight against them. In other words, Kabul fell to the Taliban almost bloodlessly. It has created a problem for the Pakistani policymakers as the government in Kabul itself handed over the control of the capital and thus the country to the Taliban. So, now what Pakistan should do? Either recognise the rule of the Taliban or reject it. Islamabad, keeping in view its core interest in Afghanistan, cannot do so either. The Taliban control is a vivid reality and Pakistan obviously has to accept it. However, at the same time sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan is not possible by the Taliban control of the entire country and this is also an obvious fact which Pakistan equally cannot deny. More importantly, the Taliban have also indicated quite unequivocally that they won’t wish to rule Afghanistan single-handedly. Instead, they would like to form a government in which other Afghan claimants to power would have stakes. This strategy is in line with the ethnic mix realities of Afghanistan as Pashtuns, which the Taliban themselves are, are not the only inhabitants of Afghanistan. There is a large minority of Tajiks and Uzbeks living in Afghanistan along with other ethnic groups. Then, the Taliban also must have learnt from their past experiences and mistakes, as it is said “the experience is simply the name which we give to our mistakes.” Last time when the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, until they were ousted by the US-ISAF forces after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, they ruled with an iron-fist and that too singlehandedly. However, despite that they were able to restore order, they could not provide the country with a stable government.
Against this backdrop, it would be wise on part of Pakistan to wait and see until the key Afghan leaders decide how to transfer power to the Taliban and how to give a roadmap for the formation of future power-sharing and ultimate formation of a broad-based, all-inclusive government in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, dialogue has been taking place between them and former President Hamid Karzai as well as the head of High Peace Council and former Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Hopefully, there would be an acceptable breakthrough soon and the Taliban would be handed over the reins of the government shortly, but along with an agreement on a roadmap for the formation of the next dispensation. In the meanwhile, Pakistan must expand its ties with the Taliban.
It is important to note that Pakistan has declared that it would go with regional states while taking any key policy decision on Afghanistan. At the moment, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia seem to be on the same page regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. All the four countries in recent years have hosted and engaged with the Taliban to find a viable solution of power-sharing in Afghanistan. On their part, the Taliban have been intelligent to welcome all countries’ role while at the same time fighting hard on the battlefront to improve their bargaining position. So, all the regional states, except India, now want the Taliban to come to power but as part of a broad-based all-inclusive government. The Taliban know it, therefore, they are also treading cautiously. Going with the regional states is a very good policy on part of Pakistan as it is a better way of achieving foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. Realistically, every state must try to realise its own interest and foreign policy objectives in other states. However, the situation in Afghanistan has been such that an all-alone policy is not going to work for any of foreign powers and states interested in Afghanistan. In particular for regional states, an all-along policy is quite viable because all regional states, whether Pakistan, Iran, China or Russia, have faced a lot of security issues from nearly 48 years of conflict, war and crisis in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, since the 1973 toppling of the Afghan monarchy, has faced unabated terrorist attacks by Afghans or Afghanistan-associated Pakistani groups on its soil. Russia, when it was the Soviet Union, had to deploy a large number of its forces in Afghanistan in 1979 to stabilise it and put in place a communist regime there. However, in return it had to face stiff US-Pakistan-Saudi-backed resistance from Afghan Mujahideen, inflicting heavy damages on Moscow’s forces. The Anti-Soviet resistance from Mujahideen in Afghanistan served as a trigger for the ultimate collapse of the already economically-reeling Soviet empire. The successor Russian Federation has also faced terrorist attacks by Afghanistan-based militant groups, like the Independent Movement of Uzbekistan and Chechen fighters. Iran also came on the brink of war with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Afghan rulers had killed Iranian diplomats. Since then, anti-Iran groups, like Jundallah and now Islamic State or Daesh, have also gained a firm foothold in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. The Taliban, during their rule, had also hosted Chinese separatist Muslim groups, like East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has been using Afghan soil to fight against the Chinese state.
The Taliban have ensured Russia, Iran and China as well as Pakistan that under their control Afghan soil would not be used against their interests. However, in the case of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban still have very close relations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan history. While Pakistan should go along with regional powers in Afghanistan, it must also try its level best to convince and pressurise the Afghan Taliban to completely sever their ties with the TTP.