From Afghanistan, the four R’s challenge

By: Nasim Zehra      Published: 02:33 PM, 16 Jul, 2021
From Afghanistan, the four R’s challenge
People wave Taliban flags at Spin Boldak. (File photo)

For Pakistan hard days are ahead. As Afghanistan appears to slide into battle with brawls, bloodsheds, breakdowns, defections, prison breaks and more, it’s truly testing times for the country.

The Taliban claim control of 85 percent of Afghan territory and independent sources confirm that the border crossings at Iran and Turkmenistan have also been captured. Some unconfirmed reports of pushback to Taliban by Afghan forces are trickling in. US president Joe Biden has already announced that it may be difficult for the Ghani government to hold on to the country and there are reports of major surrender by the Afghan National army along the Tajikistan border. The politically endangered Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s act of desperation, rhetorically querying the Taliban if they were going to recognize the Durand line, attempting to frame them as Pakistan’s proxies, will perhaps not buy him survivability.

Throughout the last 40 years, on the Afghanistan front, Pakistan has pulled through very hard times, and today is no different. Pakistan’s continuous assurances regarding Islamabad’s support for only a representative Afghan government chosen by the people of Afghanistan, will not prove sufficient to shield Pakistan against the negative security, political and economic fallout of impeding Afghan chaos.

What degree of chaos will likely descend upon the currently beleaguered people and state of Afghanistan depends on the critical question: whether the post-Ghani setup in Kabul will be a result of non-violent political negotiations among Taliban, Afghan National Army (ANA) and the militias, or of an accelerated battle between these claimants for power. While the answer to this critical question may become clearer in the weeks to come, for Pakistan the challenge of recognition, refugees, re-conciliation and regionalism – the challenge of the following four ‘Rs’ is one that Islamabad must now focus on.

First, the question of the recognition of the post-Ghani setup. The circumstances in which Ghani’s successor setup comes to power, through a political settlement or through battle, will influence recognition of all neighboring states. Pakistan’s 1997 Taliban recognition was a difficult one. Although contrary to May 1997 when on the international stage Taliban were boycotted and Pakistan was among the three countries that recognized Taliban, today’s situation is far different. Most major countries have politically engaged with the Taliban. China, Russia and Iran have had regular interactions with them and the United States through the Doha Accords have virtually provided them with international legitimacy as a major political force in Afghanistan-- still Pakistan cannot risk a solo recognition move. Nevertheless, like most policy decisions, the recognition of the Taliban must also take place as part of a collectively agreed upon decision by regional countries.

Two, the refugees question. The influx of Afghan refugees into bordering Pakistan with shared blood and tribal bonds, is inevitable. Pakistan recognizes that despite border fencing and other border controls Afghan refugees cannot be prevented from entering Pakistan, especially in case of heightened conflict with Afghanistan. However, given Pakistan’s 40-year experience with hosting and managing Afghan refugees, Islamabad is considering setting up refugee facilities along the border. Afghan refugee penetration across Pakistan has left sociological, political, security and economic impacts that the government now seems keen to avoid.

Three, encouraging reconciliation within Afghanistan among warring forces. Given the past reality, especially from the 90’s onwards, Afghan civil war was greatly facilitated by military and financial support given to respective warring factions by Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. The return to a devastating civil war of the 90’s can only be averted if Afghanistan’s neighboring countries are committed to genuine dialogue among the different ethnic and political Afghan groups instead of through their respective proxies as was seen in the past. Hence collective regionalism is absolutely central to some degree of reconciliation and co-existence within Afghanistan and to Pakistan’s peaceful neighborhood.

Four, regionalism for prevention of an all-out civil war is crucial. No reconciliation within Afghanistan is possible without regional cooperation among neighbors. Any future settlement in Afghanistan done with the objective of minimal violence will have to take place within the regional context. No amount of bilateral engagement with the Taliban by individual neighboring countries will create the environment required for peace in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is engaging regional countries through several trilateral forums including Pakistan, Afghanistan and China; Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan and also Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Another important and fairly active multilateral forum focusing on Afghanistan is the extended ‘Troika’ with China, US, Russia and Pakistan as its members with likely inclusion of Iran too. At the forthcoming July 14 SCO Foreign Ministers Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Dushanbe, important policy statement is expected.

A regional platform with active engagement and cooperation of all regional countries to evolve a common approach on Afghanistan’s political and security challenges is crucial. That appears to still be missing. Only a regional consensus among Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors can prevent a major civil war in Afghanistan. Only a no-to-proxies approach will make some peace and stability possible in Afghanistan. Pakistan, despite its troubled past on Afghanistan, is working behind the scenes to firm up a formal arrangement to ensure genuine regional cooperation.

Courtesy Arab News