How much more of this Taliban can Pakistan take?

F.M. Shakil , The Cradle, October 5, 2023 —

Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan’s longstanding and deep relationship with the Taliban was unique. But as terrorism spirals out of control and refugees spill into bordering states, Islamabad has lost its line to Kabul.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, neighboring Islamabad found itself in a unique position. One of the Pakistani generals, believed to have played a crucial role in the Taliban’s war strategy, wasted no time in embracing the moment. 

Just days after the Taliban’s takeover, Faiz Hameed, then-chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was photographed in a 5-star hotel in Kabul, enjoying a cup of green tea with a triumphant smile. Pakistan’s interests seemed to align with the new Afghan rulers who had ousted a US-backed puppet government, marking the end of a prolonged and exhausting two-decade conflict.

The proximity between Pakistan’s military establishment and the Taliban leadership was evident, with rumors circulating that ISI had helped quell resistance against the Taliban in Panjsher Valley. 

However, as time passed, the once-friendly relations between Pakistan and the Taliban have sharply deteriorated, leading to fierce border clashes. Today, this rift has extended beyond Pakistan’s primary concern, which is the Taliban’s sheltering of the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror outfit, which frequently inflicts deadly attacks against Pakistani security forces.

Regional response to the Taliban’s return

Pakistan is not alone in grappling with the challenges arising from the Taliban’s return to power. All six of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries have had their own grievances with the Islamic Emirate. These issues prompted Afghanistan’s neighbors to virtually converge on Islamabad two years ago, coming together to devise a regional strategy for addressing the unfolding post-US situation.

At these meetings, Afghanistan’s neighbors have sought to tackle the complex challenges stemming from US sanctions, dire conditions for Afghan citizens, and the influx of Afghan refugees into bordering countries like Iran and Pakistan. 

Pakistan hosted the first meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Neighboring Countries on 8 September 2021. The second meeting was held in Tehran in November 2021, and the third in Tunxi, China, in March 2022. The fourth meeting of the Afghan neighbors was held in the Uzbek city of Samarkand in April this year, which this time included the participation of Russia. 

In May, Persian Gulf state Qatar hosted a two-day, closed-door meeting of Special Envoys on Afghanistan, chaired by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. At the time, in a statement from its foreign ministry, Pakistan said it would continue to support all efforts to “advance the shared objectives of a peaceful, stable, sovereign, prosperous and connected Afghanistan.” 

Speaking to The Cradle, former BBC correspondent and seasoned journalist Rifatullah Orakzai, who focuses on Afghan affairs, acknowledges that neighboring and regional states share a common worry — the resurgence of global terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Jundallah, TTP, ISIS, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, to name a few.

“The true thorns in the sides of Iran, China, and Russia lie in the existence of global terror groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh [ISIS], which were on the brink of being squashed and rendered ineffective before the Taliban’s rise to power. However, much to their dismay, these groups have resurfaced out of the blue since 2021.” 

Orakzai emphasizes that the activities of locally based ISIS-Khorasan (or ISIS-K) have been on the rise in Pakistan and that the group – which evidence suggests received support from the departing US authorities – has become so entrenched in Afghanistan that it has even launched missiles at the Central Asian states from Afghan soil:

“Unless the Taliban get their ducks in a row and show the world a clear plan to handle these terror organizations, the nations around the block and the whole wide world would not give them the time of day as a legitimate government.” 

Islamabad’s strained relations with the Taliban

In Pakistan’s case, in addition to the ongoing conflict over TTP’s safe haven in Afghanistan, the illicit transfer of currency from Pakistan to Afghanistan and the matter of refugees have become significant factors contributing to worsening bilateral relations between the two neighbors.

Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist based in the UK, believes that Pakistan was in deep difficulty because it had gone out of its way to shelter the Taliban leadership while they fought the US-backed NATO soldiers and, later, the Ashraf Ghani government:

“Islamabad harbored the belief that the Taliban served as a strategic asset, with the assumption that their ascension to power in Afghanistan would bolster Islamabad’s regional standing. The preference of the Pakistani elite leaned towards a politically fragile and internationally disputed Afghanistan, rather than favoring the well-connected figures of Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, who enjoyed significant worldwide influence and recognition.”

The trust deficit between the Taliban and Islamabad is widening, raising concerns that Pakistani forces might take action against terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan. Such a development would drive a deeper wedge between the once-close allies, who had cooperated under immense international pressure for more than two decades.

Shared concerns over Afghanistan 

On the sideline of the regional meeting of the Fourth Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s Neighboring States in Samarkand back in April this year, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan held four-way talks to discuss the issues and concerns regarding Afghanistan. 

During the meeting, the participants touched on the security situation, drug trafficking, inclusive government, and the refugee influx as the main four issues that are keeping the neighbors from legitimizing the Taliban’s right to rule.  

Emil Avdaliani, a professor at European University and the director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think tank Geocase, believes that security holds paramount importance for the Central Asian powers in so far as Afghanistan is concerned: 

“Although there has been discourse on the allocation of funds towards Afghanistan’s infrastructure, it appears that the actions taken so far do not align with the rhetoric. One potential strategic approach to address the needs of Afghanistan could be incorporating Kabul into the Central Asian regional diplomatic platforms.” 

Regarding the role of Iran and Pakistan, he says that they share a similar perspective regarding Afghanistan and both emphasize the importance of non-interference by external actors and advocating for regional sovereignty. 

“This is the reason why they strongly oppose the US intervention in Afghanistan and want an inclusive government to run Kabul’s affairs,” Avdaliani explains.

Recognizing the Taliban’s right to rule 

In a statement that came out of the Neighboring States meeting, the ministers made it clear that they were fully on board with the idea of “Afghan leadership, Afghan ownership” when it comes to Afghanistan’s political decisions and development trajectory. 

Following the meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian disclosed that he and fellow diplomats engaged in a candid discussion about Afghanistan, covering a spectrum of critical topics, ranging from the recent surge in extremist activities to the influx of Afghan refugees seeking sanctuary in Iran and further afield.

Iran’s top diplomat was unequivocal about the importance of tackling the drug trafficking that originates in the country. He emphasized that the Taliban government — which has already swiftly moved to shut down Afghanistan’s poppy fields — bore significant responsibility in addressing this issue. He also voiced concerns about the ongoing ban on female education in Afghanistan — a condition Tehran firmly held as a prerequisite for recognizing the interim government.

China’s stance on non-interference 

But there is a limit to what Kabul’s neighbors feel comfortable demanding. Just last month, China’s Special Representative to Kabul Yue Xiaoyong stressed that, “Nothing should be an excuse for interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign and independent country. The sovereign government, the sovereign state ultimately decides itself what to do with inclusivity and human rights.”

But as journalist Yousafzai reads the situation: 

“The regional nations, particularly China, seem to be all talk and no action when it comes to investing in Afghanistan. Their promises have yet to bear fruit, mainly because the Afghan government lacks legitimacy and their banking system is in a sorry state.” 

According to Yousafzai, Iran encounters numerous challenges in its relationship with Afghanistan, encompassing drug trafficking, disputes over water rights in Helmand, and the influx of refugees. Consequently, Iran’s approach towards Afghanistan exhibits a degree of inconsistency, as do the Central Asian nations, except Turkmenistan, which maintains generally positive engagement with the Taliban.     

In the end, though, it may become increasingly necessary to seek diplomatic involvement from China, a mutual partner, neighbor, and noted regional mediator, since the Beijing-brokered Iran-Saudi detente caught the world by surprise. 

Pretty much every country in that neighborhood is either a member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or has signed up to Beijing’s ambitious, multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect and boost their economies. So China taking a regional lead on critical Afghanistan-related issues may come to pass if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Caught in the middle 

Last month, Pakistan intensified efforts to crack down on exchange companies and money-changer outlets, aiming to curb rampant currency smuggling into Afghanistan. This practice had been perceived as fueling Afghanistan’s economic ecosystem while depleting Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves, causing the Pakistani rupee to depreciate significantly. Interestingly, this action resulted in a decline in the Afghan exchange market and a six-month low for the Afghani currency.

Curiously enough, both Iran and Pakistan are cracking down on Afghan refugees with an iron fist. The Pakistani authorities have rounded up 1,400 Afghans, including 129 women and 178 children, in Karachi and Hyderabad alone.

It is worth noting that Islamabad has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention 1951, which confers a legal duty on countries to protect people fleeing serious harm. Since August 2021, a substantial number of Afghan asylum seekers, approximately 250,000, have made their way to Pakistan. However, a strict crackdown on migrants left them apprehensive about potential detention or deportation.

This shift in Pakistan’s once cozy relationship with the Taliban is possibly the most significant change in that neighborhood since the US occupation ended. For decades, Pakistan had been one of just three countries, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to recognize the initial Islamic Emirate established in 1996. 

Nevertheless, the current array of complex security challenges has given rise to a multifaceted regional situation that makes Islamabad, today, just as nervous as Afghanistan’s other neighbors. 

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