The Post-Euphoria Pakistan-Taliban Relations
Hossein Ebrahim Khani, Research Fellow at the IPIS
The sudden upsurge of Taliban movement that brought about the total collapse of Ashraf Ghani administration shall on the surface signify the glorious success of the prolonged Pakistani endeavor to help install an establishment of its preference in Kabul. For over 25 years and since the creation of Taliban movement, Islamabad openly and steadfastly has pursued this ultimate strategic objective and may rightfully be credited for its triumphant long-term planning and policy conduct. Pakistani leaders in the face of the growing global concern and anxiety over the fate of Afghanistan and Afghans under the new version of “Islamic Emirate” have maintained a low profile and generally speak of the vitality of formation of a broad based and inclusive new set-up in Kabul. The recent dramatic events in Afghanistan may also lend apparent credence to the notion of Pakistan emerging as the single-most beneficiary of the upheaval followed by the euphoric over-confidence on a guaranteed smooth interaction with Afghanistan ruled by the entity that has widely been considered as a proxy for Pakistan.
The successful phase of dislodging the government in Kabul in favor of a new term of Taliban rule shall undoubtedly be associated with serious challenges for Islamabad in the long run. Pakistan’s influence on Taliban on the one hand and its apparent cooperation and engagement with war efforts of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan on the other earned Islamabad a level of respect and status. It obliged major players of the Afghan issue to continue to accommodate Pakistan despite all their hidden grievances on the nature and essence of the double-sided policy of Pakistan on Afghanistan. With the Afghan issue fading away from the structure of international dealings with Pakistan, the global attention towards Islamabad may also take a downward trend. Being less compelled to live with the unique approach of Pakistan towards the Afghan crisis any further, the players shall now have a free will to shift more of the weight of their balanced regional approach in favor of New Delhi. Considering the shaky state of Pakistan economy and the vitality of the continued flow of foreign investments, loans and grants from the mainly western countries and western-influenced financial institutions, Pakistan has to settle with less generous and forthcoming economic and trade partners to support its struggling economy.
Taliban’s foreign relations apparatus has greatly improved its competence and the scope of its performance since the ouster of its first Islamic Emirate in 2001. The group is no longer under the absolute command of a charismatic leader, rather, a collective leadership of influential figures with better understanding of global affairs and challenges ahead of their external dealings or the prerequisites of interaction with the world community is in place to carefully formulate and pursue the group’s foreign policy goals. Taliban has diversified its international contacts and is now less constrained to solely rely on Pakistani diplomatic support, thus resulting in limited edge and say of Islamabad on the group as a whole. Afghanistan under Taliban could not expect to benefit fully from the foreign financial and development assistance that for the past couple of decades have helped the country, at least to some extent, to modernize and to rebuild infrastructures. The unfolding events portray dark images of deteriorated national economy, strained livelihood of citizens and expected exodus of waves of refugees heading to the neighboring countries including Pakistan with greater social and economical fallouts for Islamabad to tackle. Also, to help sustain the Islamic Emirate during the unpredictable transitional period and until availability of external substitute funds needed to manage the day-to-day affairs of the state, Pakistan shall be obliged to share a portion of the burden despite all the economic difficulties of its own day.
Not in line with the hope and expectations in Pakistan, re-establishment of pashtun-dominated Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is less likely to open a golden chapter in the overall Islamabad-Kabul relations. The chronic Pak-Afghan territorial dispute, Afghanistan’s special relations with India and Pakistan’s ambition to project itself as the sole conduit for foreign trade and also the energy export of the Central Asian states are the major elements involved in the formulation of Islamabad’s Afghan policy that have justified the resolute determination to help install an allied Pashtun establishment in Kabul. However, the paradox remains unresolved as the same Pashtun ethnicity favored and backed to conquer Kabul is also the claimant in the territorial dispute case. Since the creation of Pakistan no Afghan government, including the Taliban administration of 1996-2001, even came close to the idea of recognition of the Durand Line as the official and settled international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Considering the fact that there are more ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan than those in Afghanistan and also the unbreakable ethnic bonds existing among Pashtuns on both sides of the border, a new Pashtun rule in Kabul could offer more favorable grounds for secessionism to flourish in Pakistan’s Pashtun-populated areas.
As for relations with India, Pakistan could not expect the Taliban government to share Islamabad’s perception in its dealings with New Delhi. Fearful of the continued international isolation, Taliban leaders on many occasions have expressed their desire to establish and maintain cordial external ties. On the sensitive issue of the future course of Kabul-New Delhi relations, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a senior Taliban leader on August 29 maintained that “India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past.” This message of amity backed by previous open or behind-the-scenes contacts of Indian emissaries with Taliban figureheads and exchanges of assurances of goodwill by both sides cast dark shadows on any presumption of uniformity of the directions of Pakistan and Taliban policies towards India.
Touching upon the internal security issue of Pakistan, the rise of Taliban in Kabul inevitably shall further inspire the Pakistani insurgent or terrorist groups with similar ideological root and identical objectives as of Taliban. The most notorious and deadly group of this kind is the “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan” founded in 2007 and responsible for horrible terror attacks in Peshawar and Quetta. Though Pakistan security forces have managed to curtail the terror capability of the group to a great extent, possible streamlined contact between the two movements on both sides of the frontier and resumption of the terror activities of the group in Pakistan remain matters of serious concern for Islamabad both in combating the security threat and management of relations with Afghanistan under Taliban.
Formation of the Taliban administration in Kabul followed by few crucial months for consolidating grip on power shall determine whether Pakistan’s persistence to realize a vital strategic depth in Afghanistan has finally paid off, or all her costly long-term investment is bound to fall victim to its own initial success.