By Salman Bashir
The Troika Plus format of meetings on Afghanistan has proven to be exceedingly useful in bringing China, Russia, the United States and Pakistan to evaluate and coordinate their positions relating to Afghanistan.
In this context, the Troika Plus meeting in Islamabad on Thursday assumes special significance as it was followed by the interaction of special representatives of these key global powers with the acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Amir Khan Muttaqi, who is visiting Islamabad.
The joint statement issued by the Troika Plus is notable for its concern and compassion for the Afghan people, who after 40 years of conflict are now faced with a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, worsened by the economic squeeze and political conditionalities demanded of the new Taliban Administration.
It is also remarkable for the realization that ‘realistically’ there is no other option but to engage with the interim Afghan government- a point repeatedly underscored by Pakistan. The international community cannot expect the Taliban interim government to deliver on all counts, notably human rights; the education of girls; and the elimination of terrorist organizations- when its very ability at even minimal governance is being eroded by sanctions and restrictions.
The intensification of terrorist attacks on innocent people, in mosques, schools and hospitals by Daesh, constitute a rude awakening for the international community to the pernicious reality of today’s Afghanistan, where terrorist groups are trying to expand the space of their operations by derailing the interim government. This, if not checked and reversed now, will bring to nought the 20 years of counter-terror operations of the US/ NATO in Afghanistan. Daesh’s principal target is the Taliban.
Some may wish to see Daesh as the new rallying point of ‘national resistance’ against the Taliban- a devious strategy borne of anger and rancor against the Talibs but at complete variance with the interests of peace in Afghanistan. Allowing Daesh greater space will signify lasting trouble with international ramifications. Moreover, fomenting civil strife in Afghanistan will have immense consequences for the region as a whole.
The Biden administration needs to take a clear eyed view of Afghanistan -unencumbered by the baggage of a 20 year war effort and attendant disappointments. This seems to be taking shape now with the appointment of a new US special representative for Afghanistan, Tom West. Ambassador West is expected to bring fresh insights and will pursue long term US interests in Afghanistan with a high degree of pragmatism. This also means cooperating with China, Russia and Pakistan to devise modalities to assist and enable the government of Afghanistan to deal effectively with its multiple internal challenges. Islamabad seems to be a starting point in this direction.
The prevalent situation in Afghanistan should compel the US and Europe to change its narrative on Afghanistan with greater emphasis on cooperation and broad ranging engagement with the Taliban government. The question of recognition of the interim government in Afghanistan is a moot point and is somewhat superfluous to the actual dynamics of the unfolding situation.
It is true that the Taliban are keen to reach out to the world and establish good relations with all their neighbours and the international community. But pressing the point of ‘inclusivity’ as a ‘precondition’ would be short sighted and in fact, misses the real and larger context of varying intra-Taliban predilections and the fact that the US has had contacts and engagement with the Taliban for several years. Also that the Taliban generally adhered to the undertakings given at Doha.
The Troika Plus should move towards elaborating a consensus view on how best to assist Afghanistan in a coordinated manner steering clear of geopolitics; by moving ahead with humanitarian and economic assistance, and providing administrative, organizational and technical help for effective governance. Major power consensus on these matters will help to realize what the US/ NATO started out to do 20 years ago in Afghanistan. And it can only be done by co-opting the Taliban as partners.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India. Twitter: @Salman_B_PK)