As humanitarian aid to Afghans assumes priority, Pakistan’s pressure to recognize the Taliban is worrisome
Irrespective of political beliefs, ideologies and interests, the only right thing for all members of the international community to do to address the grim humanitarian crisis that has already begun to grip Afghanistan within a month of the Taliban marching into Kabul is to provide humanitarian aid generously and quickly, and to ensure that such aid is routed entirely through reliable channels and certainly not via the terrorist Taliban government. There is, simultaneously, the need for responsible members of the international order to be wary of Pakistani attempts to misuse the misery and the plight of the average Afghan as an emotive tool for sneakily selling recognition of, and doing business with, the Taliban to those influential countries that are presently absolutely disinclined to do so.
While a basic minimum level of engagement with the Taliban may be required to ensure unhindered access to humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, what Pakistan has been suggesting is much broader in scope. From Prime Minister Imran Khan to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf, everybody in Pakistan has gone around this past week imploring the world to first cuddle up to the Taliban and then use the resulting warmth and influence to entice the Taliban to change its medieval ways and begin treating its citizens, especially women, as human beings. Nobody, however, seems to be asking why Pakistan, quite obviously the Taliban’s main benefactor, cannot get the terrorist outfit to first mend its ways and only then aspire to be accepted. The Taliban had, after all, promised in Doha to adhere to respectable standards of human rights.
United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres underscored the scale of the brewing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan when he said at a conference on 13 September that “1 in 3 Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. The poverty rate is spiraling, and basic public services are close to collapse. The people of Afghanistan need a lifeline. After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour”. UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on the other hand, spoke of receiving “deeply troubling” accounts of Taliban raids on “some nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups”, and of suppression of the rights of women and girls. Al Jazeera, meanwhile, in a detailed report titled ‘A day with the Taliban 2.0’ that Osama Bin Javaid wrote on the basis of first hand interactions with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan after their takeover of the country, concluded emphatically that “They do not see themselves as the Taliban 2.0. It is the world’s lens that is 2.0, they explained; the Taliban is the same”.
In an encouraging development, at the 13 September conference in Geneva, governments pledged more than $1.1 billion in aid for Afghanistan, which was double the $600 million that the UN had solicited as a stopgap solution to provide aid to 11 million people over the next four months. It was also heartening that a decision was taken to ensure that none of the money would go directly to, or through, the Taliban government. It will, instead, be routed through the UN and its nongovernmental partner organizations still operating in the country. While the aid would ensure that those most needy in Afghanistan get relief, humanitarian assistance would not resolve the broader question of how the Taliban government will continue to operate amidst reports of spiraling inflation and a severe cash crunch. Beyond humanitarian assistance, any release of funds to the Taliban government without commensurate and visible improvements on the pledged inclusive government, human rights and anti-terror fronts may prove to be counterproductive and would only play into Pakistan’s hands.
Pakistan, meanwhile, was in the limelight for all the wrong reasons at congressional hearings in the US earlier this week. Lawmakers, cutting across party lines, demanded severe action against Islamabad for its subversive role in Afghanistan, including ending its status as a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). They observed that US bankrolling of Pakistan came even as its support for Taliban terrorists claimed the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Responding to lawmakers who grilled him on Pakistan’s “duplicitous” role in Afghanistan over the past two decades, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that Islamabad had played a dodgy role that involved “hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan”. Blinken 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 asserted that the Biden administration will review ties with Pakistan in light of Islamabad’s long-running support for Taliban terrorists while simultaneously professing to help Washington in Afghanistan. It would also re-formulate what role Pakistan needs to play in the region in coming times. Some, though, want the US to go a step further. Michael Rubin, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, believes that “Simply put, it is time to sanction Pakistan”. Blinken’s precise words, when asked by lawmakers if it was time for Washington to reassess its relationship with Pakistan, seemed to suggest that harsh measures may well be under consideration. He responded, “This is one of the things we’re going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead – the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that”.
The character of the US – India relationship has also undergone a sea change in this century, a factor that could tellingly encourage the US to deal with Pakistan in a befittingly strong manner. Itself a long-suffering victim of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, India would be relieved that the US, after its close, first-hand, and highly frustrating experience in dealing with Pakistani back-stabbing and terror-sponsorship in Afghanistan, would now be more aware of and sensitive to what India had been enduring for much longer than the US had. The excessively dependent relationship that Pakistan has crawled into with China, and the latter’s aggression and attempts to bully India at the yet undemarcated border between the two countries, have only served to further cement the US – India relationship. India is now a ‘major defence partner’ of the US, and the two nations have in recent years inked several military-related agreements under this partnership.
It emerged at the congressional hearings that the US and India may be in talks for using airfields in India as “staging areas” for carrying out aerial surveillance and launching drone attacks on terrorists in and around Afghanistan. Such cooperation would yield substantial benefits to both countries, and it would cause considerable consternation in Pakistan and China. Republican Representative Mark E. Green pointed out that after the US withdrawal the nearest airbases the US could use were in Qatar, Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf. These were far away from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where the targets may be located. Green, therefore, asked if the Biden administration had, in view of the collusion between the Taliban and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, reached out to New Delhi for using “over-the-horizon” capabilities from “staging areas” in north-west India for neutralizing potential threats to the US in and around Afghanistan, Blinken responded by saying, “We are deeply engaged with India across the board. With regard to any specifics about over-the-horizon capabilities and the plans we put in place or continue to put in place, I would rather take that up in a different setting”. The latter part of Blinken’s response seemed to suggest that something was in the works. If indeed it was, the US could gain physical proximity to the region of its interest while avoiding Pakistan’s unreliability and double-crossing. The Afghanistan – Pakistan border region, as the crow flies, is not very far from north-west India. India, on the other hand, would gain from the closer watch it would be able to keep on terrorist groups of its direct interest such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), and their many offshoots. Another common adversary, China, could also be well-observed from north India.
Pakistan’s response to the fierce criticism it received at the congressional hearings was characteristically duplicitous. PM Imran Khan said in an interview with CNN this week that “We (Pakistan) were like a hired gun. We were supposed to make them (the US) win the war in Afghanistan, which we never could”. This statement was interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was an admission by Khan that Pakistan as a State was all too happy to serve as a mercenary. Secondly, if Pakistan was nothing more than a hired gun, certainly its loyalty and priorities ought to have been with the entity, the US in this case, that was hiring it. In reality, that was never the case. Thirdly, if Pakistan had agreed to accept shiploads of money at the time of being hired, surely its only responsibility in return ought to have been to “make the US win”. Pakistan ensured just the opposite.
Khan also claimed to have been subjected to drone strikes by an ally, the US. He said, “they (the US) must also know there were 480 drone attacks by the US in Pakistan. Only time a country has been attacked by its ally”. While there was the occasional feeble objection to US drone strikes by Pakistani authorities over the years, Pakistani claims of having provided the targets on the basis of which the US had launched its drone strikes were manifold. It is another matter that on most such occasions, the targets identified by Pakistan were terrorists opposed to the Pakistani State, and not to US interests in Afghanistan. Be that as it may, the US could not have been “attacking” its “ally” Pakistan if by Pakistan’s own admission the coordinates for the targets of some of these “attacks” were being provided by Pakistan itself. It may have been more appropriate of Khan to accuse the US of attacking Pakistan’s terrorist assets through drone strikes, something that certainly would have caused considerable pain to the Pakistani military establishment that was churning out such terrorists. Also, Khan seemed to forget completely to mention that it was his country, Pakistan, which was incessantly attacking troops of its “ally”, the US, through the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Khan also denied that Pakistan harboured terrorists and gave them safe haven. He thundered, “What are these safe havens? The area of Pakistan along the border of Afghanistan had the heaviest surveillance by the United States drones ... surely they would have known if there were any safe havens?” While what Khan said about US drones relentlessly seeking out terrorists in the border areas was true, so was the fact that the drone strikes did achieve a fair degree of success in eliminating several of the terrorists that were present in these areas. What Khan was remiss in not mentioning was that the more senior and influential terrorist leaders were being sheltered by Pakistani intelligence agencies in mansions in Pakistan’s main cities, not in caves and huts along the border. To name a few, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy head of the present Taliban government, was found in Karachi. Osama Bin Laden was discovered living in a mansion in Abbottabad. There were dozens of other terrorist leaders that Pakistan was providing safe havens to in cities and towns across the country.
Khan termed his country’s relationship with the US as “terrible”, without owning up to Pakistan’s overwhelming share of responsibility and guilt for taking the once flourishing ties to such a low. Referring to Blinken’s comments at the hearing, he added, “I have never heard such ignorance”. Selling fear of the “chaos” that would engulf Afghanistan unless the international community provided financial help to the Taliban, Khan advocated the terrorist group’s cause by asking the world to give “time” to the Taliban on human rights and to push the Taliban in “the right direction towards legitimacy”. Khan took no responsibility to nudge the Taliban, a close “ally”, in “the right direction”.
Recent US statements, meanwhile, have underscored that the US was closely watching Pakistan’s desperate efforts towards legitimizing the Taliban and thereby putting the seal of its own dominance on the country. In the Senate, the Republican ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee Senator James Risch said that any country that backed the Taliban in its present form “should risk a strategic downgrade in their relationship with the US”. Blinken’s assertion 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” made the US position on the matter crystal clear. This stand needs to be persisted with and unerringly enforced.
As the dark shadow of a brutal and inept Taliban regime looms over Afghanistan, the US, during the fleeting moments of doubt that may arise while formulating a tough policy towards Pakistan, would do well to take a moment to imagine what Afghanistan could have looked like at the time of the US departure had Pakistan not kept the Taliban afloat, well oiled, and well armed. US troops would be returning home after a victorious and meaningful mission; power would cordially be handed over to a democratically elected Afghan leader; freed of the distraction of constant terrorist threats, better governance and countering corruption would have received closer US attention; a relatively prosperous Afghan nation would be looking ahead to a brighter future; and above all a free and vibrant population would look up with gratitude to the US and to the ideas and values that it stood for.
As the whole world watches, if the US is serious about regaining its earlier pre-eminence, its prestige, and its authority, it would for a start need to demonstrate through firm handling of Pakistan that it was back in the game and that it meant business.