As the Taliban blitzkrieg throttled them to the reins of power in Kabul, it caught many assessments by intelligence agencies, experts, and power players with surprise and dreaded over the prospect of Taliban-led Afghanistan. The despair is most vividly captured by continuous reminders on social media through footages of the past, when in the late 1990s, the Taliban first ruled the country.
However, in a contradictory way, the mood was celebratory in some sections of Pakistan as the country’s political leadership, including the Prime Minister himself, expressed euphoria over the triumph of the Taliban. It is reflective of the narrow security lens with which the Pakistani state approaches Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy is predicated on two principal threats to its territorial sovereignty: Pashtun nationalism and Afghanistan-based intricate networks of terrorism, typically supported by India and some quarters in the former Afghan dispensation. These security perceptions informed the country’s facilitation of the Doha process.
Since the Doha negotiations started, Pakistan publicly maintained a principled policy over the future of Afghanistan. This policy constituted two fundamental principles: Pakistan wants a stable, peaceful, and non-interfering Afghanistan; Pakistan will not interfere in Afghan affairs and has no favorites in the Afghan political milieu. These two principles primarily underpinned Pakistan’s approach toward the future Afghan government.
But with the march of the Taliban to power, the discourses in Pakistan reflect a dangerously disturbing and confusing trend among its power elite. Leading the charge to normalise support for the Taliban and associated groups, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said on the floor of the Parliament that Osama bin Laden was a “shaheed” (martyr). The situation was further worsened when the Foreign Minister responded to a question on Laden and showed reluctance to acknowledge whether he was a martyr or a terrorist by stating, “I will let it pass.’’
Such bold support from the highest political authority is concerning especially when government ministers went on a discourse rampage with the interior minister, first publicly acknowledging the presence of “Taliban families” in Pakistan, then following with a statement over “changed Taliban” and now casually admitting that Pakistan gave shelter and education to some in the Taliban leadership.
Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Zartaj Gul, in a now-deleted tweet, triumphantly welcomed the Taliban, as she said that their ascendance offset the Indian-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan. Finally, Prime Minister Imran Khan reached a crescendo moment with his remark: “Afghanistan has broken the shackles of slavery.”
In utter disregard of the global perceptions, the political leadership went about their way of appeasing their electorate and the popular opinion at the cost of the country’s image in the world.
Paradoxically, the government’s Ministers of Human Rights and Information and the military leadership balanced these strong assertions with more measured comments on the evolving situation. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari lamented over the failure of leadership without endorsing the Taliban’s actions while the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry articulated Pakistan’s stated policy of an inclusive government in Kabul. Reportedly, during negotiations, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) walked out twice during the meetings with the Taliban, citing the lack of flexibility on their part. COAS even remarked in a briefing to lawmakers that the Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are “two faces of the same coin.” Furthermore, in a recent press conference Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the media arm of the Pakistani military, expressed a cautionary statement over the situation.
These disturbing and confusing statements signal a policy incoherence and a remarkable lack of understanding of international perceptions in Pakistan’s highest echelons of power. In utter disregard of the global perceptions, the political leadership went about their way of appeasing their electorate and the popular opinion at the cost of the country’s image in the world. When the Americans and international forces were engaged militarily in Afghanistan, there were regular rounds of accusations in western capitals regarding Pakistan’s tacit support to the Taliban and now the discourse by our political leadership seems to give credence to them.
Pakistan’s active participation in the Doha process which included releasing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief interlocutor, under American pressure was aimed to reshape the country’s image globally. Furthermore, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism, which led to the development of the National Action Plan (NAP) was in concert with this attempt by the state to reconstruct its image as a moderate country.
The failure to implement NAP led to this moment of great confusion where polarisation among the Pakistani power elite and public regarding the Taliban is more likely to push Pakistan toward more radicalisation and extremism. This confusion is reminiscent of the counter-terrorism campaign’s discourse, when in 2014, Pakistan was at a crossroads in its anti-terrorism fight. The country can ill-afford the resurrection of that dark decade.
The discourse currently articulated by the political leadership significantly undermines that effort of image reconstruction and Doha-inspired Pakistan’s principled policy toward Afghanistan. The country must recognise that in international affairs, perception matters more than facts. Especially in the backdrop of American withdrawal, Pakistan is being perceived as a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Pakistan’s domestic politics with religious right also feeds into this perception.
Moreover, Pakistan must also be aware of the severity of the challenges that lie ahead. When Americans were in Afghanistan, they needed Pakistan for transit routes. Pakistan itself developed this transactional nature of the relationship with the Americans. It developed a rentier model where it utilised its strategic geography to gain access to international credit and support. But now that the Americans have left in a rather ignominious way, we must not cherish high hopes over American benign-ness. If the recent discourse atmosphere in mainstream and social media is any guide, there is already an effort-in-play to pin a significant degree of blame on Pakistan and its alleged ‘terror sanctuaries’ a narrative that our ministers played a vital role to perpetuate.
Pakistan needs to reconsider its communication strategy with regards to the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. Most of the discourse by Pakistan regarding Afghanistan is security-centric because the former does not have comprehensive relations with the Afghan society. Adhering to securitised notions, Pakistan always preferred to deal with the ruling authority than the people. Thus, our historical role constrains us in the evolution of our discourse toward Afghanistan.
Therefore, on a strategic level, Pakistan must reconstitute its communication strategy by shifting focus from a narrow security lens to broader foreign relations within which security does not dominates the policy making. Pakistan is already engaged in humanitarian efforts by facilitating aid to Afghanistan. However, it should go beyond and offer the new governing dispensation with assistance for operating critical infrastructure such as airports, power plants, telecommunication, dams, etc.
Moreover, it could also explore avenues of institutional development. For example, Pakistan could assist in setting new state bureaucracies and national military and police forces. It would indeed be a long shot and would have many complications. However, we should still consider that the Taliban are now poised for international recognition and would like to be seen as a normal political entity. Thus, they will need these complex structures of state to function as a normal country. Pakistan could also rope in Qatar and Turkey for these endeavors as they are already vying for influence by offering their expertise. This effort could also earn Pakistan the much-needed goodwill among the people of Afghanistan, primarily in the urban society. We should engage directly with the people than the one ruling over them.
On a tactical level, as Fahd Husain recently argued, Pakistan should develop a strategic communication cell on the Afghan situation and put a moratorium on speaking on the matters concerning it. Pakistan must also put its own house in order by choosing to speak when necessary and what is required. As evident from above, giving in to the feelings than reason could cost us dearly.
The steps of strategic level may not realise at all due to the volatility of the situation, but it could give us a necessary plan to produce our discourse which could broadens our salience to Afghanistan beyond the securitised notions. These acts of assistance could also result in reshaping Pakistan’s perception in global discourse. Most importantly, if these acts are materialised, they could secure our interests from mayhem and violence by building a viable Afghan society and remodeling the Afghan state.