Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-39

Taliban says Afghan girls will be back in schools by March

39. Souring of Taliban’s relations with Pakistan   

External interference in Afghanistan has reappeared much sooner than one would have expected after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August. In a familiar pattern, the rumour mill has become active.  

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova hit out today at the rumours being planted by American sources insinuating that Moscow is supplying arms to the so-called National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in the Panjshir province. 

Zakharova said, “Anticipating possible subsequent fake news reports on this issue, we deem it necessary to state the following: Russia did not participate in any way whatsoever and is not going to participate in arming the Afghan conflicting parties… This scenario fundamentally contradicts Russia’s interests.”

Evidently, Moscow felt perturbed enough to scotch the rumours before they got rehashed as fake news. Zakharova underlined that exacerbating any intra-Afghan contradictions “fraught with instigating a civil war based on ethnic strife” will not contribute to stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. 

Interestingly, the Russian foreign ministry’s intervention came a few hours after a phone call from Pakistan Foreign Minister Imran Khan to President Vladimir Putin earlier today. Although the Kremlin readout of Putin’ conversation did not refer to Afghanistan, according to a press release issued in Islamabad, Imran Khan told Putin “that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan was pivotal for regional stability. Afghanistan was facing dire humanitarian and economic challenges and support of the international community to the people of Afghanistan at this critical juncture remained vitally important.” 

The Pakistani statement also noted that Imran Khan underscored the importance of the release of Afghanistan’s financial assets for addressing the dire needs of the Afghan people. And that both leaders agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in different areas, including Afghanistan and increase high-level exchanges. 

Earlier this month, some Iranian reports had forewarned that the recent authorisation by the US Department of Treasury for financial interaction with Taliban and the Haqqani network signified a new attempt by the Biden Administration to complicate the positive trajectory of the Taliban’s relations with Russia and China and other regional states. 

Simply put, the new thinking in Washington is that by easing the pressure on the Taliban in a calibrated way, a dependency develops on the part of the latter on American goodwill, which in turn would slow down or arrest Kabul’s pivot to Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, etc. 

Whereas previously the US almost entirely depended on the Western NGOs to keep an indirect presence in Afghanistan, there is a shift now toward leveraging the Taliban by using Washington’s considerable political and international instruments. 

Basically, the tactic involves giving concessions to the Taliban in dollops in such a way that its dependency on Russia, China and other regional states (especially Iran and Pakistan) would diminish. In effect, Washington is exploiting the reservations on the part of the neighbouring states regarding the Taliban government by providing it limited aid in such a way that makes it even more difficult for them to decide on moving forward with the interim government in Kabul. 

It is a chicken-and-egg situation that can change only if the regional states take a coordinated approach that recognising the Taliban government is the most reasonable decision under the circumstances. The point is, the withholding of recognition by the regional states is in turn impeding the process of state formation in Afghanistan and the transformation of the Taliban from an insurgent group to the ruling elite. 

Meanwhile, all indications are that the US is preparing to fish in the troubled waters of the Taliban’s tensions with Islamabad. A recent discussion at the Washington-based think tank US Institute of Peace (which is an American federal institution established by the US Congress) anticipated the likelihood that the recent border incidents on the Durand Line can potentially lead to a rupture in the relations between Kabul and Islamabad. 

Taking part in the discussion, Ambassador Richard Olson (former US envoy to Islamabad) said that there is an inevitability about the Taliban’s “break” with Islamabad over the question of Durand Line “despite the Taliban’s historic reliance on Pakistan for support”, as the Taliban has a position consistent with the stance of all previous Afghan governments since 1947 asserting the right to free movement of Pashtuns across the colonial era frontier and not recognising the line as an international boundary. 

Olson went on to say: “The issue may be further complicated by the fact that — apart from the issue of recognition — Pakistan demarcates the Durand Line differently from Afghanistan, and thus portions of the Pakistani fence may lie within what Afghanistan (and most of the international community, including the United States) would consider Afghan territory.” 

Please note the subtle hint here that Washington is sympathetic toward the Taliban position. Olson adds: 

“But for Islamabad, the question of unrest in its own Pashtun territories looms much larger now than it did three decades ago… Kabul’s allowing of a de facto safe haven for the Pakistani Taliban is already a large irritant in the bilateral relationship. If Islamabad perceives that the Afghan Taliban has moved beyond asserting a traditional position on the Durand Line to actually supporting a revanchist movement to reclaim lost Pashtun lands, the relationship may well break. Already Islamabad is ascribing the TTP’s renewed strength to Indian machinations, so the regional implications of this conflict are potentially large.” (here)

To be sure, these are explosive remarks by a former American ambassador to Pakistan. Interestingly, another speaker in the USIP discussion speculated that if push comes to shove, “if the Taliban ramp up their challenge against the border, Pakistan might seek to influence the Taliban’s internal politics more aggressively.” 

Clearly, Islamabad has a big challenge to cope with — without exacerbating tensions, it must remain firm and exert pressure on the Taliban to be reasonable and conciliatory. This is where Washington’s signalling to the Taliban becomes important. 

The dismissive way the Taliban brushed aside the recent offer by Imran Khan to depute trained personnel to Afghanistan highlights that the ground beneath the feet is shifting. The Taliban would see political advantages in tapping into latent Pashtun ethnonationalism. 

Equally, the Taliban does not feel beholden to Islamabad for its takeover in Kabul in August without Pakistani military or logistical support. The Taliban has diversified relationships today and it faces no serious opposition threat internally, too. Above all, Taliban’s main challenge comes on the financial and economic front and there Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity to be of any meaningful help.      

Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf is heading for Kabul on Tuesday on an overnight trip. The two key items on his agenda will be the fencing of the Durand Line and, secondly, the elimination of safe havens for the Pakistan Taliban and other anti-Pakistan elements from Afghan territory.