It is no surprise that Pakistan's two top security officials are in the US to meet with their counterparts to discuss future cooperation in Afghanistan.
The current state of Pakistan-India relations too will figure in the discussions, including India’s Kashmir policy. But how to proceed in Afghanistan will be the key issue. Indeed with Pakistan and the US being at the core of the multiple concentric circles that define and influence Afghan politics and security, for any workable approach for a peaceful Afghanistan, their cooperation is indispensable.
Accordingly, NSA Dr Moeed Yusuf and DG ISI Gen Faiz Hameed’s Washington trip is about conveying to the US how Pakistan can cooperate with the US in working on a future Afghan political disposition, including possible intelligence cooperation for counterterrorism etc. There is now an urgency with a potentially deadly civil war looming with catastrophic fallout on Pakistan. In recent weeks, General Austin Miller, commander of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, has warned that the rapid Taliban advance is a concern for the world as a chaotic civil war could start within Afghanistan.
Five important developments in Afghanistan are underway as the important Pakistan-US meeting takes place in Washington. One, the US missile attack on the Taliban to stop their advance. The missiles were fired from possibly a sea-based facility in the Persian Gulf or the Middle East. Currently, other than controlling 60 to 70 percent of the territory, about 50 percent of the provinces, the Taliban control almost all border crossings, except with Pakistan. The Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing is the only one controlled by the Taliban. Media reports confirm that the Taliban are now collecting taxes from trucks and containers at this border.
Two, desertion of Afghan troops continues. They either surrender to the Taliban or cross over to bordering countries including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Three, the rapid arming of militias including Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, Ahmad Massoud and others is taking place to supplement the ANA forces. Four, the Tehreek-e-Taliban leader based in Afghanistan declared that the TTP’s primary objective is to free the tribal areas from Pakistan and to become independent.
Five, during the last round of the Doha negotiations, the Kabul delegation clearly stated that in discussing the future of Afghanistan no options are off the table. Many read this as a first time acceptance that a post-Ghani transition setup can be discussed. Significantly, despite President Ashraf Ghani’s unrelenting attacks and accusations against Pakistan, Islamabad has continued to engage with the Kabul government. In fact, in the third week of June Pakistan invited the Kabul government for an intra-Afghan dialogue. Afghan leaders linked to Kabul declined.
The current military situation is a complex one with no clear conclusion in sight. Neither the international community, including Afghanistan's neighbours, will support a clean sweep on the military and political front by the Taliban nor is it helpful for Pakistan's own internal peace and plurality. Above all, Afghan society, politics and state will also not favour it. Yet the Taliban military advance has neither stopped nor been reversed.
The Taliban Rehbar Shura have still not taken the military option off the table. Despite speculation around the Taliban-US understanding of the Taliban not opting for a military takeover of Kabul, on-the-ground dynamics forced the recent US airstrikes while the Taliban advance continued.
A true paradox exists thus, leaving no either/or binary option for anyone. It’s both a humbling and troubling moment for most engaged in the protracted Afghan conflict. In 2001, through the Bonn Agreement, the Taliban were politically dealt with. In the following twenty years, the world’s leading and powerful military forces came together to inflict a military defeat but the Taliban fought back for more than just survival.
The Taliban have survived by banking on a widely reported complex network of activities and relationships. These ranged from their own flow of revenues from internal and external border controls to purchase of weapons from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan including airdrops from Russian arms dealers. Interestingly, many regional countries for more than a decade have engaged the Taliban for their own strategic objectives including settling scores with the United States. For example, in March 2018 US General John Nicholson clearly told the BBC that the US has interests in Afghanistan and the Russians are going after its interests by arming the Taliban. He implied that the Russians went to the borders of Afghanistan with loads of weapons on the pretext of counterterrorism against Daesh but these weapons and other equipment were then smuggled across the border and supplied to the Taliban.
At present, most regional countries including China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and even India have engaged the Taliban. As a pragmatic power, China is reaching out to the Taliban. Beijing knows militant groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh ETIM in Afghanistan give the Taliban negative leverage, while militant groups get strategic depth by being based in Afghanistan. The idea is to wean away the Taliban from these militant groups and to bring them on track.
The blunders of the Bonn agreement, of keeping the Taliban out, are now being reversed with the expectation that the militarily ascendant Taliban will have to accept an inclusive setup.
And to the Taliban it is now clear that, despite their military successes, it is not 1996. The Taliban cannot be accepted by their intolerant, sectarian and near totalitarian preferences. If they attempt to establish an exclusive and controlling setup in Kabul they must know that international forces including Afghanistan’s neighbors do have the political and diplomatic stamina and the desire for a financial and diplomatic strangulation policy.
As a political force, the Taliban will have to live within, however imperfect, the prevailing global consensus on how states must behave within and outside of their own territory. Several forms of sanctions can severely restrict the fiscal, political and diplomatic space for a government to effectively function. Given this backdrop, what then must Pakistan do? Four steps are necessary.
One, stay with the regional consensus on an inclusive transitional setup and no solo recognition of the Taliban in case they take over Kabul through force. In fact, clear messaging to the Taliban is essential. A unified call by the international community that any capture of power by force will invite sanctions and not recognition.
Two, work on regional consensus and proactively continue engagement with regional countries to promote dialogue.
Three, stay with the diverse voices of the Afghans which includes those calling for a democratic Islamic republic and a Taliban oriented approach. There is a spectrum of socio-cultural outlooks within Afghan society which must find space according to Afghan preferences. With Afghan mode of functioning and negotiation being reduced to the gunpowder language, the need now is to ensure there is sufficient negotiating space available within the Afghan context for them to reach some kind of inclusive interim arrangement from where they can travel onwards toward a less weaponised political process, and one that allows coexistence. Pakistan must continue to reach out to the non-Taliban groups and make the outreach to other diverse opinions more effective. Much harder effort is required to build greater Pakistan-Afghan trust.
Four, Pakistan must stay with the logic of the Doha process. Pakistan's prime minister has repeatedly announced Pakistan's commitment and support for a political settlement. Senior security officials maintain that like all countries with a stake in Afghanistan Pakistan too does not want an emirate. Many in Pakistan realize that the TTP and the Afghan Taliban are two sides of the same coin.
Pakistan will remain engaged with the Taliban as it must, since they are clearly a political military entity that the rest of the world is engaging with. For Pakistan, the broader question exists: the mega issue of our times that states must address is the need for the evolution of a rational, humane and competent state so as to counter the irrational and extremist forces/ tendencies of our times that threaten the very fundamentals of human civilisation. Pakistan has to keep its eyes on that goal.
The writer is a senior journalist.
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