Saturday November 27, 2021

Afghan policy needs revamp, its practitioners shakeup

September 13, 2021
Afghan policy needs revamp, its practitioners shakeup

Pakistan has faced a double whammy in the perception domain: the West thinks we are too close and have huge leverage on the Taliban. But significant Taliban leadership believes Islamabad is promoting the western agenda at their cost.

The PTI government's talking points add to confusion i.e. "we have no favourites" mantra at times when the Taliban are a political/military reality and when some sort of political decision i.e. diplomatic recognition challenge, is staring at Pakistan. These outmoded talking points are no longer credible.

The government itself claims it has lost significant influence on the Taliban which comes as worse news against the backdrop of what is at stake in terms of Pakistan's core interest. This core interest is twofold: First, its counterterrorism expectation from the Taliban. Second, the Taliban are internally focused and Taliban-led Afghanistan does not pose a threat to the outside world–a convergence of Pakistan's interest with the US and regional countries. Paradoxically, Islamabad can secure both interests only by incentivising the Taliban’s behaviour through a robust engagement or diplomatic recognition. Leaning on the Taliban through levers of first-class order can only make Pakistan a useful partner for the US, China and Russia's counterterrorism goals in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is also sending confused messaging on the formation of Taliban government. Does it seek to promote a multi-ethnic government which Taliban have already more or less included in its multi-ethnic cabinet? Or does it want a multi-politico ethnic government which is altogether a different thing–implying ex-political proxy groups of regional and international players controlling Afghanistan's realm of affairs for the last two decades? While the West will continue to weaponise women's rights and enlisting tainted political leaders of a bygone era, it should no longer be our concern and for which we should stop pressing the Taliban. In other words, we should avoid muddled strategic communication with the Taliban on issues that the speed of events have made marginal.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, an old experienced hand, is neither able to communicate with the Taliban-led Afghanistan in their language nor understands their cultural nuances. As a result he has gone isolated. So is the MOFA’s bureaucracy.

Our Special Afghan Envoy, thought to be an ethnic Pashtun, has baggage: the Taliban perceive him for someone who was negotiating as if to play Zalmai Khalilzad’s team. Thus for them (just like Zalmay Khalilzad) he has outlived utility as a relevant connector.

As the situation changes in Kabul, the Taliban are facing stark differences among individual factions, on goals, administrative approaches and accommodating diverse pressures. All these issues are up for grabs. So Pakistan cannot be content with i.e. celebrating the departure of the Indian client regime–Ghani government–and gleefully embracing the advent of the Taliban as neutral admin and expecting the advantage to stay as a permanent phenomenon.

Whereas the capture of state and government has crowded out the heft of Pakistan’s strategic influence on the Taliban, Islamabad has still an opportune time to expand on leverage. For example, there is a long list of incentives for the Taliban to work and cooperate on issues such as trust/legitimacy, Afghan refugees, economic recovery, currency devaluation, skilled labour requirement, supply of daily consumer items, smooth running of Afghan transit trade and financial flows. Islamabad has a chance to benefit from and instrumentalise these issues to cajole the Taliban to cater to the counterterrorism interests of Pakistan in Afghanistan by making the difficult choice of wrapping up the TTP and BLA. And only Pakistan is in such an enviable position to bargain with the Taliban (on above issues) thus restoring its strategic influence.

Through enhanced influence, Pakistan will also achieve the following: It will help allay the security worries of regional countries and potentially collaborate with America for its CT needs i.e. ALQ/ISKP (as the 9/11 anniversary has just passed unceremoniously). It will prevent Pakistan from cutting adrift by financial institutions on the US prodding and usual finger pointing.

Islamabad will also be able to counter, aside from regional and global power brokers, the Europeans, Japan and Canada lurching to a negative view of Pakistan scapegoating things that got ugly in Afghanistan in the run-up to the fall of Kabul, for not doing more to avoid that, whether or not that perception was deserved.

Here are a few specific recommendations that can guide the quarters concerned in revisiting Afghan policy contours and shaking up its practitioners to address rapidly evolving opportunities and challenges in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Urgently, an empowered three-member core team should be constituted, who can reach out to every faction of the Taliban leadership and its mid-level officials. The core group should be mandated to establish subgroups on issues like narrative-building, political option i.e. recognition, diplomatic strategy and economic turnaround to achieve the fusion with Afghan economy and to bring to bear strategic clarity and cohesion to state’s Afghan policy.

For the public face, an ethnic Pakistani Pashtun of the Taliban cast, Durrani or Ghilzai, as a connector and narrative builder with good communication skills, and with a clout of the status of minister for state or equivalent position be drafted in to lead. A candidate who has expertise in Afghanistan, deep contacts across the Durand Line and who can speak the Taliban’s lingua franca.

A tactful military-cum-diplomat who is good in the art of candid analysis, strategising, bridging and coordinating a framework for the execution of core group’s efforts on behalf of the security institutions; one who knows how to be respectful of Taliban culture, has the ability of demonstrable understanding of the nuances, besides having tabs on key links to leverage the proposed Taliban charm offensive effort.

Another resume would be of a person who could be a direct link to the Taliban, who may have respect among them probably of ex-Jihadi or ex-army/Jihadi background. A person who carries the respect of the Taliban relates to their worldview, has good communication skills and deep contacts. The only caveat is (that) the gentleman in question should not be a retired diplomat or retired army person who has a mindset of clinging to old myths on Pakistan’s prolonged infatuation with Afghanistan.

Last but not the least, the core team will recommend supporting religious/political figures who can be useful in bridging gaps with the Taliban regime.

The overarching goal of the proposed recalibrated Afghan policy and deploying its new practitioners should be to leverage the Taliban’s needs through soft incentives to effect a change in their behaviour. It will in return help create an alignment with not only Pakistan but also the world’s security requirements. By implication, Islamabad will be a net contributor to the region and world’s peace and stability in the post-Taliban Afghanistan era.

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