Af-Pak and regional realignments

The way forward for Pakistan is to reconsider its foreign policy — a hybrid system is not beneficial for Pakistan

Af-Pak and regional realignments

The peace deal between the United States and the Taliban is turning into a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. The seizure of power by the Taliban has resulted in the closure of many embassies in Kabul and termination of diplomatic relations. Suspension of financial as well as other aid by the US and European countries is adversely impacting Afghanistan’s economic situation. Additionally, freezing of Afghan Central Bank assets worth $9.5 billion by the US authorities has enhanced economic miseries bringing Afghanistan’s banking system to the verge of collapse. The health facilities are running out of medical supplies.

The World Health Organisation has already warned of a shortage of medical supplies essential for treating millions of people in Afghanistan. Similarly, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has raised its concerns related to food insecurity. The statement quoted that around 14 million people including 2 million children are severely hungry. A large number of Afghans are fleeing taking refuge in the neighbouring countries. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that by the end of 2021 around half a million Afghans may leave their country.

Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan might get worse. Taliban’s return to power after 20 years with no opposing force has given them a free hand to implement their version of Islamic principles. Certain instances have been reported of the Taliban prohibiting girls from attending schools, curtailing the freedom of speech and barring women from playing their role in various sectors. These actions are making people’s lives more miserable.

How will the overall situation in Afghanistan impact Pakistan? There is no doubt that the long-drawn war on terror started against the Taliban for siding with Al Qaeda. The only non-NATO ally, Pakistan, suffered a financial loss to the tune of $123 billion. Additionally, Pakistan lost thousands of civilians and soldiers, including law enforcement officials in suicide attacks, bomb blasts and drone attacks. Despite being the most affected partner of the war against terror, Pakistan’s role was viewed suspiciously by the US.

This distrust in relationship that began in the last days of President Bush has left Pakistan in a precarious position. During his election campaign, President Obama resolved that he would not hesitate to order action inside Pakistan if necessary. He clarified that Pakistan’s sovereignty was subservient to US interests and he would attack with or without the approval of Pakistani government. He proved this through drone attacks and later via Abbottabad Operation. In his first interview, he said that US troops were already in Pakistan, and his country would continue with drone attacks. His successor, Donald Trump further tightened the US policy towards Pakistan.

During his tenure, the US not only reconsidered its foreign policy towards Pakistan, cutting financial aid, including the Coalition Support Fund, but also initiated motions in the Financial Actions Task Force (FATF) to blacklist the country over allegations of financing terrorist groups. They completely ignored Pakistan’s sacrifices and the role it had played to restore peace in the region. The Trump administration initiated peace talks with the Taliban leaving Pakistan out and finally, the US and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in February 2020 that on one hand talks about release of terrorists and on the other, assures the removal of sanctions on the Taliban. It also mentions their future political role.

The entire process led by the US and the Taliban ultimately paved the way for Taliban’s capture of power in August 2021. President Biden is under severe criticism for withdrawing forces and leaving the Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban. Efforts are being made to normalise the situation with even the CIA chief secretly visiting Kabul to discuss future strategy. For Pakistan, it is time to closely observe the entire situation and continue to convey its security-related concerns to the global community.

The visit by the former Inter-Services Intelligence director general to Kabul and his interaction with international media gave a new twist to the situation. It shifted the blazing guns of criticism towards Pakistan. Our ill-directed celebration of Taliban’s hostile takeover has put us on the list of sympathisers of terrorism and the global community is indirectly holding us responsible for US and NATO forces’ failure in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has also failed to persuade the world that it is in fact the victim and has shared resources with the Afghans and accommodated millions of refugees. The failure of policymakers to gauge consequences of the Taliban takeover has negatively impacted Pakistan in many ways, including a new wave of terrorism and disruption of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

It is high time for us to reshape our foreign policy and focus on trust-building exercises with our friends and strategic partners. The foreign minister appears to have been a complete failure when it comes to conveying Pakistan’s narrative. Over the last three years, we have seen relations deteriorate with the Middle East, Turkey and China once considered Pakistan’s close friends.

China is displeased with us for many reasons, the main reason being Prime Minster Khan himself. It is unfortunate that President Xi Jinping‘s initial visit, scheduled in September 2014, had to be postposned due to a sit-in by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). This was seen as a major blow to Pakistan-China relationship. It may be remembered that earlier, the CPEC had faced fierce criticism from the PTI, now in power.

Even after assuming power, PTI ministers continued to cast doubts on transparency and effectiveness of CPEC projects, Federal Minister Murad Saeed alleged corruption in the Multan-Sukkur Highway project and Razak Dawood stated that CPEC projects were not well-negotiated. This gave away a lot. Accordingly, the pace of investment and execution of projects witnessed a negative trajectory.

Another reason for strained relations with China is inadequate security arrangements for Chinese workers.

The dividends of CPEC will help China and Pakistan strengthen their positions due to which some regional and trans-regional powers are not happy. Despite that, the security challenges associated with this project are increasing and Chinese workers have been attacked several times.

India has invested in multi-billion-dollar projects in Afghanistan to strengthen its position and use the geographic position to its benefit against Pakistan. The current Afghan leadership has already signalled its intention to maintain good relations with India. The Taliban are looking for recognition and would opt for the way that suits them. Moreover, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is active again although all four countries have different priorities. Where Japanese are more inclined towards free and open Indo-Pacific, Australia is hesitant to accept it as a formal coalition. However, US and India are strategic partners with common interests in multiple areas. India is aspiring to take a lead role in the region and has managed to form an alliance with the US.

Meanwhile, some Republican senators have introduced a bill to impose sanctions on the Taliban seeking a report from the Secretary of State about his assessment of Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban from 2001-2020 and toppling of the government in Kabul.

The way forward for Pakistan is to reconsider its foreign policy — the hybrid system is not beneficial for Pakistan. Priorities are changing all over the world. A country of over 200 million people cannot be run with a stick. To gain respect in the world, we must develop a civilised culture and strive to strengthen democracy.

Pakistan must resolve its internal issues; political stability being key to economic stability and a sound foreign policy. The parliament should behave in a way that favours reconciling matters with all stakeholders. This will ultimately give confidence to the incumbent government to implement a balanced foreign policy.

Huzaima Bukhari and Dr Ikramul Haq, lawyers and partners in Huzaima, Ikram & Ijaz, are adjunct faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), members of the Advisory Board and visiting senior fellows of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE). Abdul Rauf Shakoori is a corporate lawyer based in the USA and an expert in white collar crimes and sanctions compliance

Af-Pak and regional realignments