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July 19, 2021

Why should Pakistan recognise Afghan Taliban now?

Why should Pakistan recognise Afghan Taliban now?

The threefold success on the battlefield has made the Taliban de facto rulers of Afghanistan. A better question is should the international community, particularly regional countries, start thinking of their diplomatic recognition? The answer is obviously yes.

Unlike ordinary judgments of right and wrong, diplomacy envisages the constraints of a solution based on de facto realities of the two parties, particularly the balance of power between them.

The bargaining position of the Afghan Taliban in talks for a settlement has enhanced manifold after capturing new territories, controlling border ports, trade and choking supplies to main cities. No urban centres sustain this blockade and thus eventually have to surrender – a fait accompli.

It practically means the incentive for the Taliban has diminished to accord any parity to the losing side i.e. the Kabul regime in sharing a substantive slice of power while talking to them as part of intra-Afghan dialogue. On the other hand, the failure of the US/Nato in meaningfully defeating the Taliban imposed limits on the Kabul regime to force its will on the Taliban.

In contrast with the 1990s, regional and international stakeholders have started treating the Taliban differently this time around. Already the US made them a legitimate party to negotiate the withdrawal of its troops and their peaceful exit from Afghanistan. The messy withdrawal catalysed the battlefield's phenomenal gains. Unlike the lame-duck Kabul regime, the Taliban advent in Afghanistan potentially serves multipurpose for the regional and international players.

For the US, geopolitically, they [Taliban] can be a hedge against China through proxy warfare in the rising Sino-US rivalry; if needed, the Taliban can be weaponised against Iran as well. The US will continue to be the main beneficiary of the narco trade worth over 70 billion dollars: Poppy cultivation under the Nato presence in Afghanistan increased threefold i.e. 370,000-hectare land.

All the Taliban need is some sort of intra-Afghan agreement with some elements (not all) of opposition to qualify for a talking point of the US: "If they make a deal they are likely to get recognition or international assistance, and avoid the late '90s [repeating]", observed a diplomat in Islamabad. Thus this way America will whitewash the Taliban.

Similarly, Iran has conferred de facto recognition on the Taliban. Tehran implicitly welcomed the Taliban's takeover of the border areas and the main trading entry port – Islam Qala. One of the most conservative newspapers of Iran termed the Taliban as a "reformed" entity. This time Tehran neither cobbled together its Shia and Sunni proxies against the Taliban, nor forged the Northern Alliance. On the contrary, Iran summoned govt/opposition representatives like Yonus Qanouni to Tehran and made them sit with the Taliban delegation to work out a solution. It was a clear signal that Tehran is behind the Taliban.

Tehran's bonhomie with the Taliban comes after its core interest was undermined by the Kabul regime's shenanigans with the US and India to weaponise the waters of the two rivers flowing into Iran to cripple its ecosystem as a lower basin country. Secondly, the Taliban will help secure new connectivity projects (as part of a $500 billion worth deal Iran struck with China). Once America starts rolling back sanctions after the JCPOA Agreement, Iran eyes a special responsibility of the Taliban to safeguards its economic interests in opening its markets.

The $12b Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pipeline is another leverage the Taliban brought to the table. They have assured Turkmenistan of support to protect its security. It’s de facto recognition of Taliban by Turkmenistan and gleeful reception to take over its adjacent transit border post in Herat (Torghundi border port) by the Taliban.

Further North of Afghanistan is Russia and its sphere of influence i.e. Central Asian countries. Moscow's infatuation with erstwhile terrorists, now the Taliban, encompasses support and treatment of the Taliban as legitimate players on the Afghan scene. It was Moscow that accepted the fact that the Taliban defeated the proxy, Kabul regime, and their US/Nato sponsors. Geo-politically Taliban is a new instrument of Russian influence in Afghanistan. They will be weaponised to use as a hedge to continue Russia's implicit suzerainty on CARs.

Paradoxically, they will potentially ensure Russia's decades-old strategic objective i.e. eventual maritime foray in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean accessed via the landmass of Afghanistan–passing through Iran and Pakistan.

Since as a major energy producer, Russia is seeking new markets in Asia. It needs the Taliban to guard energy pipelines and routes of Afghanistan to export oil and gas. Also, the Taliban serve Moscow's interest in another interesting way: sustaining or controlling narco trade in Afghanistan.

After the main hurdle that the US has left, China is back in the driving seat to extend BRI/CPEC to Afghanistan and Iran. Hitherto, the Kabul regime under US pressure blocked any Chinese attempt to work on the BRI project in the country.

Linking the Chinese border with Afghanistan's Wakhan stretch, the Taliban are now squarely in the immediate neighbourhood of Beijing. China has expressed no surprise on the Taliban's capture of the vicinity – Badakhshan in Afghanistan. They (Taliban) immediately signaled: "We would welcome the BRI and Chinese investment". Reciprocating, China offered to host an intra-Afghan dialogue. With the Doha office and earlier diplomatic liaison with the Taliban, Beijing is closely working with them partially recognising their clout in post-US Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the Taliban have a longer shelf life than the bunch of post 9/11 Afghan politicians like Ashraf Ghani, Hamid Karzai and CIA assets such as Amrullah Saleh and Muhib who are tainted by corruption, warlordism and unpopularity.

But the stakes for Pakistan is higher than any player in the region: Its long borders, national security, terrorism, two frontal war scenarios with India, trade, people-to-people contacts, etc, are directly linked with the new order in Afghanistan. Spanning over two decades, post 9/11 Afghanistan was a haven for TTP, BLA and other groups killing thousands of innocent Pakistanis and soldiers across the border.

With the Taliban in control of three-fourth of Afghanistan, the Kabul regime has no longer functioning internal sovereignty and hence lost legitimacy – a prerequisite for international legitimacy.

Islamabad better convince Iran, China and Russia in particular, to extend diplomatic recognition.

Already the world rightly or wrongly perceives Pakistan to have some leverage over the Taliban. If we play confused, the Taliban will get a message of betrayal to the detriment of Pakistan's national interest. The talking points that Islamabad has no favourites in Afghanistan and the mantra of Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process are old clichés.

Now it must signal to the Taliban that it is going to recognise them as the legitimate Afghan government. The influence thus acquired will incentivise the Taliban to accept Pakistan's plea (on behalf of the international community) to accommodate the interests of other Afghans and also regional countries.

Thus, the only way to enhance its leverage is Pakistan will have to take the lead by formally recognising the new reality of the de facto Taliban regime as the de jure Afghan government.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai