Pakistan’s Afghan policy response

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By Nasim Zehra

WITH Prime Minister Imran Khan who likes to speak his mind, it isn’t always easy to play policy cards discreetly. So barely within 48 hours of issuing an official notification declaring that only ones responsible for foreign and security policy will issue statements on foreign policy matters, a rather uncomfortable one landed in the public zone. ‘The Afghans have emerged from mental slavery,’ declared Prime Minister Khan. This was at complete variance from Pakistan’s declared policy of measured words on the US and Afghanistan topic.
The real challenge however for Pakistan has unsurprisingly begun elsewhere. 
All fingers are pointing toward Pakistan for the Taliban victory, for a pathetic US defeat and the cowardly exit of the usually thundering Ashraf Ghani. An India, for now rudderless on the Afghan front, is seeking to play spoiler from its presidency of the UNSC.
Meanwhile, with Afghanistan now completely in the hands of the Taliban and almost without firing a bullet, Pakistan like all other countries of the troika and within the region are forced to review their own past positions. For example, several statements that repeatedly came from Pakistan in recent days now hold very little relevance. For example: that there would be no recognition if there is a forced takeover by Taliban; that only a representative government would be accepted by Pakistan; that only a democratic government would be acceptable and that the exit of the Ghani government must be followed by setting up of an interim government.
Pakistan seems to understand this fully… that it’s scapegoating time for the bullies who have showed up to be paper tigers. The world’s most advanced military machines and sophisticated strategies over 20 years basically met defeat after defeat.
But beyond the scapegoating is also the reality of Pakistan’s proximity to the Taliban. Over the last three decades, the Taliban have often located their political shuras, their families, their supporters etc in Pakistan.
Post August 15, however, Pakistan understands it has its work cut out for itself. Irrespective of what Pakistan may say, the world will dole out all discredit for any major off-track actions on the political, diplomatic and socio-cultural front. The role of women has topped concerns for some within the Taliban setup and with their Pakistani friends. Ensuring space for women to continue the jobs they occupied during the Ghani rule has been a concern… one already taken care of through a statement by a senior member of Taliban’s cultural commission, Enamullah Samangani, who said the Taliban don’t want women to be victims. 
‘They should be in government structure according to Shariah law,” he said.

Afghan Taliban discussing at a unknown place

Politically, the Taliban have already adopted an inclusive approach reaching out to leaders including former President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and others. In a show of respect for Karzai, after the August 15 takeover, a senior Taliban leader visited Karzai’s home to reassure him of his security. Abdullah Abdullah and Karzai are both likely to be accommodated in the Afghan cabinet to be shortly announced.
The contours of Pakistan’s Afghan policy are already evident.
One, recognition of the Taliban government is now a matter of time. China, Russia and Pakistan may extend recognition any time now. Pakistan’s position in the extended troika meetings has been that recognition allows countries to engage the Taliban on critical matters of political inclusion and social policy including the status of women, security, development etc.
Two, assisting the Afghan people seeking support from Pakistan. In a show of solidarity with the Afghan public, the Pakistan High Commission was the only one issuing visas even on D-day August 15. Around a thousand visas were issued and subsequently more than 2,000 daily to Afghan citizens for a two-year period. Foreign news agencies have also been given visas and special flights arranged for those keen to travel to Pakistan.
Three, the refugee influx into Pakistan is being discouraged and borders remain closed. For now there is little evidence of any major movement of Afghans toward Torkham or Chaman seeking exit from Afghanistan.
Four, Pakistan has reached out to most political forces in Afghanistan. One of the first actions taken by Pakistan was to arrange a PIA airbus bringing a plane load of key Hazara and Tajik political figures including Speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rehmani Rehmani, to Islamabad. Pakistan wanted to signal to them that it was concerned about their security and more importantly that it recognized their political standing. Most of these leaders were invited to Islamabad last month for a conference on Afghanistan but Ashraf Ghani opposed the idea. Senior Pakistani officials reached out to former President Hamid Karzai, and invited him to send his family to Pakistan. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was also contacted. Ambassador Omar Zakharwaal should also be arriving in Pakistan.
Five, support to the new Afghan government will also be extended for managing the affairs of the state. Once the Afghan government is in place, details will be worked out.
In the coming days, as the Taliban-led government settles down, Pakistan and Afghanistan will have to work out several important dimensions of their relations. Ranging from the renewal of the transit trade agreement, to providing transit facilities through Afghanistan to Central Asia, to the support Pakistan must extend to the new government for managing governance issues, to security questions including Afghanistan-based Pakistani militant group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Pakistan’s diplomatic and political skills will indeed be put to the test, yet it has to its credit a sufficient amount of soft power. Pakistan enjoys soft power by virtue of the Taliban leadership having mostly been raised in Pakistan. The families of most continue to live here, and most Taliban leaders have engaged with successive Pakistan governments.
It’s all stock-in-trade in this bullish season for Pakistan-Afghanistan relations… provided Pakistan moves wisely.

(Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert. Twitter: @NasimZehra)

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