Pakistan has much to fear if Afghanistan descends into chaos

Pakistan updates

The writer is a former permanent representative of Pakistan to the UN and ambassador to the US and UK

Like the rest of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan’s reaction to the Taliban takeover has been a mix of relief and anxiety. Relief that the widely feared spectre of a bloody civil war did not materialise, but concern over how the Taliban will govern.

Islamabad was as stunned as the rest of the world by the Taliban’s swift and relatively bloodless seizure of the country. Despite the close relationship it has maintained with the Taliban over the years, Pakistan, and the wider region, is now confronted with a new set of challenges. Although countries including China, Russia, Iran, the central Asian republics and Pakistan hold different stakes in their relations with Afghanistan, they share common security concerns about cross-border terrorist activities.

A June report of the UN’s sanctions monitoring team found that a significant part of the al-Qaeda leadership is based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and that Isis-K, or Daesh, “remains active and dangerous”. Other groups include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The latter is of greatest concern to Islamabad after its leaders declared “war against Pakistan’s security forces” and said it would seize control of the border regions to “make them independent”.

For China, the danger is from ETIM. For central Asia, it is IMU. Russia is concerned with the activities of Daesh. Iran is concerned about Afghanistan’s Shia population, which previously suffered atrocities under Taliban rule. For India, the Taliban’s return is a strategic setback. All regional states are keen to engage the Taliban and secure commitments that terrorist groups based in Afghanistan will be prevented from using the country to attack others. This is also the international community’s priority and reflected in the UN Security Council statement of August 16 that called on Afghanistan to combat terrorism.

Afghanistan’s forever wars have exposed Pakistan to security threats that have exacted a heavy cost in lives, as well as social and economic consequences. It has had to contend with a witches’ brew of problems from the conflict and foreign interventions next door — militancy, extremist violence, narcotics, a “Kalashnikov culture” and playing host to more than three million refugees. Having borne the brunt of four decades of violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has the most to gain from peace and the most to fear if the uncertain situation descends into disorder.

This risk of regional contagion has been a compelling reason for Pakistan to play an active behind-the-scenes role in persuading the Taliban to talk to other Afghan groups and establish an inclusive government. The international community has also urged Pakistan to use its influence. There are limits to that leverage now that the Taliban controls the country. Collective action may be more effective. The Extended Troika, comprising the US, China, Russia and Pakistan, remains a useful vehicle to exert joint pressure.

Given Afghanistan’s ethnic divide, only a broad-based government can assure peace and stability. While attempts continue to nudge the Taliban towards political accommodation, Islamabad remains apprehensive. If continuing talks between Taliban leaders and their former political foes fail, the country could plunge further into crisis, leading to serious security ramifications across the region.

International engagement with the Taliban has, so far, had a moderating impact. Their desire for legitimacy has obliged their leaders to offer assurances of no retribution against former enemies and promises to establish an inclusive government, respect human rights, including those of women, and ensure that terrorist groups are not allowed to flourish on Afghan soil.

International recognition is an important inducement to push the Taliban to make good on these promises — not least because the country’s economic survival depends on it. Pakistan for its part is in no rush to recognise Kabul’s new rulers. Having faced isolation in the 1990s when it was one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban government, it now makes political sense to co-ordinate with key countries.

But if diplomatic incentives prove insufficient to press the Taliban to translate promises into action, a grim and uncertain future looms, not just for Afghanistan but for the region as a whole. That possibility has impelled Pakistan to fence the border and establish refugee camps in case the worst-case scenario unfolds. In this volatile region, history sadly often repeats itself as tragedy.

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