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EFSAS Commentary

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to the US is an opportunity to stem the downward spiraling human rights situation in Afghanistan


Pakistan’s newly anointed Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Oxford-educated scion of the Bhutto Zardari family who many in Pakistan see as a future Prime Minister, embarked on his maiden visit to the United States (US) from 17-19 May at the invitation of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to attend the ministerial meeting on the ‘Global Food Security Call to Action’ being hosted by the US and UN in the context of the war in Ukraine. Bhutto Zardari will have carried with him to the US the onerous responsibility of attempting to correct Pakistan’s diplomacy with the US, left in disarray by the impulsive and unpredictable regime that Imran Khan headed till recently. The former Prime Minister had even gone to the extent of accusing the Biden Administration for his ouster. It was in this Pakistani desire for getting things back on track with the US that opportunities lay for the latter to pressure Islamabad into ensuring that its proxy, the Taliban, stops its ever intensifying march towards denying the people of Afghanistan, most particularly its women, their basic human rights. This ought to have been an important goal for the US during Bhutto Zardari’s visit, given that the Taliban had made specific commitments on human rights in its agreement with the US on the basis of which the western coalition had agreed to depart Afghanistan. From the yet sketchy details of the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s interactions in the US that have emerged at the time of writing, it does appear that Afghanistan did figure prominently.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, it appears, is now either more comfortable in its position at the helm of the country or has become more indifferent to what the rest of the world thinks of its trampling of rights of Afghan girls and women. The latest in a long and damaging list of how it is doing so was reported even as this commentary was being written – women anchors on Afghan television channels will henceforth have to cover their faces while on air. The BBC this week carried reports of armed squads of the Taliban’s Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice patrolling the streets and going from shopping mall to mall hunting for, and sternly warning, any woman they found to not be attired in strict accordance with the Taliban’s instructions. After their return to power, the Taliban had demanded that women wear at least a hijab, a scarf covering the head. However, the Associated Press (AP) reported that on 7 May the Taliban rulers ordered all Afghan women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public — a sharp, hard-line pivot that confirmed the worst fears of rights activists and an already distrustful international community. The decree, which allowed women to only show their eyes in public evoked similar restrictions on women during the Taliban’s previous rule between 1996 and 2001. It further ordered that women leave home only when necessary. It stipulated that male relatives would face punishment — starting with a summons and escalating up to court hearings and jail time — for women’s dress code violations.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it was deeply concerned about the decree and would seek clarifications from the Taliban. A UNAMA statement said that “This decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives during discussions and negotiations over the past decade”.

Meanwhile, the elusive Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, in a rare interview broadcast on 16 May by CNN, spoke of “very good news” soon on the return of girls to secondary schools, something that the Taliban had prevented since March when it closed high schools and colleges for girls just hours after their reopening. Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Haqqani as saying that “I would like to provide some clarification. There is no one who opposes education for women”, and informing that “work is continuing on a mechanism” to allow girls to attend secondary school. Haqqani hinted that the “mechanism” was linked to school dress codes, explaining that education should be based on Afghan “culture” and “Islamic rules and principles”, and referred “more broadly” to the issue of women wearing the hijab. Haqqani enunciated lofty ideals for the Taliban’s line of thought when he explained, “If someone is giving away their daughters or sisters, they do that based on total trust. We must establish the conditions so that we can ensure their honour and security. We are acting to ensure this”. The women of Afghanistan, quite obviously, do not figure anywhere in this line of thought.

In another blatant display of the Taliban’s utter disregard for human rights, in a new wave of changes it decided to completely dissolve five departments that had been set up by the former government. Among them was Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission. Innamullah Samangani, the Taliban government’s deputy spokesperson, explained to Reuters why this action had been taken. In addition to shortage of funds, the departments, including the Human Rights Commission, “were not deemed necessary”, he asserted.

It is in this deteriorating scenario next door that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to the US is taking place. A certain Pakistani desperation to improve ties with the US is palpable, and that has been brought about largely by Pakistan’s precarious economic situation and the US’ influence on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The new government in Islamabad needs assistance from US-led lenders as it looks to repair its crumbling economy. There is talk that Pakistan could be facing default in a matter of weeks. Pakistan has also now seen that money is no longer on tap from the Gulf countries. The Chinese too have been reluctant to lend any more to Pakistan for fear that it will not be able to repay, reportedly refusing a $6 billion loan for a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) power project recently.

There is also a lot at stake personally for Bhutto Zardari. He will within months lead the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) into a general election, and his high profile portfolio would be seen as an opportunity by him to demonstrate his mettle to the Pakistani electorate. A successful and productive visit to the world’s most powerful country would go a long way towards that. Visibly nervous, understandable given that this was his first major visit overseas as minister, Bhutto Zardari did make some right sounds during his interactions in the US. During his meeting with United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres, he “underscored that Pakistan desires peace with all its neighbours, including India”, and also “appreciated” the role of Guterres in “mobilising humanitarian and economic assistance for the Afghan people”. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed that the Foreign Minister shared Islamabad’s concern about the spillover of instability in Afghanistan into Pakistan and called for resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) issue.

In his meeting with Antony Blinken, bilateral relations, the regional situation, and cooperation in various sectors between the two countries were reportedly discussed. In a tweet after the meeting, Bilawal wrote, “We reaffirmed the importance of the 75th anniversary of Pak-US relations and mutual commitment to strengthening broad-based, comprehensive ties between the two countries”. He later added, “We seek to have a more broad-based relationship that encompasses all the dynamics of our friendship, which would have, obviously, a political component, a people-to-people component and the defense component, but most importantly, the economic component as far as the Biden administration is concerned”.

Blinken, in his opening remarks, said that the US wanted to expand its partnership with Pakistan on a range of issues covering economy as well as regional security. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price added in a statement that “The secretary and the foreign minister discussed expanding partnership in climate, investment, trade, and health as well as people-to-people ties. They underscored the importance of US-Pakistan cooperation on regional peace, counterterrorism, Afghan stability, support for Ukraine, and democratic principles”.

Blinken, of course, would have had his statements made at congressional hearings in the US in September last year at the back of his mind throughout the meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. Blinken had then acknowledged that Islamabad had played a dodgy role that involved “hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan”. He had added that “(Pakistan's role) is one that’s involved harboring members of the Taliban, including the Haqqanis... It is one that’s also involved in different points cooperation with us on counter-terrorism. It has a multiplicity of interests, some that are in conflict – a clear conflict – with ours”. Blinken had asserted at the hearings that the Biden administration would insist that “every country, including Pakistan, make good on the expectations that the international community has of what is required of a Taliban-led government if it is to receive any legitimacy of any kind or any support”.

For the US, the constant bombardment by unpleasant news from Afghanistan is not something its leadership would want at a time when it is already deeply invested in the Ukraine conflict. The US would rather focus its energies on that, and on the threat that it perceives from an aggressively poised China. The US believes that Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban could contribute towards stability and adherence to human rights in Afghanistan, provided Islamabad accords such an aim even part of the importance that it attaches to its own security. The ceasefire that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan helped Pakistan negotiate earlier this week with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, which has been attacking targets within Pakistan, is a case in point. It reiterates that the Pakistani State still retains the level of proximity with the Taliban that it has always had, as well as enough influence over it to compel it to get a fraternal militant outfit to overcome its strong reservations about talking to Islamabad. It is, therefore, not the dilution of Pakistani influence over the Taliban as some commentators have contended, but the lackadaisical absence of Pakistani interest and will to ensure the best interests of the Afghan people that is responsible for Islamabad’s apathy.

Pakistan has been the only country in the world that has been screaming itself hoarse pleading for the repressive, regressive Taliban regime to be recognized by one and all. While making this demand, Pakistan has not appeared to be awake to its own responsibility towards the Afghan people, especially after imposing the Taliban back upon them. Even as the Pakistani establishment looks on apparently unconcerned, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) is among the several deadly terrorist organizations that have established themselves firmly in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

The US, too, owes it to the Afghan people to use its many leverages with Pakistan to help the Afghans and prevent the Taliban from taking them to the stone age. With Bhutto Zardari’s visit to the US having just concluded, only sketchy information about the discussions that were held on Afghanistan has become public. The details of the deliberations are not yet known. For the sake of the Afghan people, it is hoped that the real messages from US and UN officials to Bilawal would have stressed on zero tolerance to the sort of terrorism that Pakistan has come to be known for. Equally importantly, firm commitments should have been obtained from him that Pakistan would use its close ties to get the Taliban to reverse its regressive steps and ensure basic human rights to all Afghan citizens, especially women. Any meaningful improvement in bilateral relations with the US should have been made dependent upon the extent to which Pakistan delivered on this. 

The US’ task of placing these demands to Pakistan would have been rendered much less difficult by Washington’s recognition that US-Pakistan relations can at best be transactional so long as Pakistan chooses to remain irretrievably in Beijing’s strategic lap, and as Bhutto Zardari had reiterated on the eve of his visit, no matter what happened in the US Islamabad’s “iron-clad friendship” with China would never be harmed.