Pakistan Should Realise That Taliban is Out of its Orbit. By Manish Rai

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 Recently again Taliban fighters and Pakistani Army fought each other on Durand Line. The clashes erupted on May 13 after the Pakistani side began repairing the barbed-wire fence it first erected in 2017 to demarcate the Durand Line border. This de-facto border which no government in Afghanistan has formally recognized after it was first drawn by the British Empire in 1893. The clashes continued for several days. Pakistani and Taliban forces targeted each other at various places along the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost, which borders Pakistan's western Kurram district. Tensions have risen between Pakistan and Afghanistan soon after the Taliban seized power in August, 2021. It’s evident that Pakistan’s Afghan foreign policy, especially towards the Taliban, has failed miserably. Following the Taliban’s return to power and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan said that “Afghans have broken the chain of slavery.” Likewise, while responding to a media query, in Serena Hotel, Kabul then Pakistan’s spy chief Lt.-Gen (Retired) Faiz Hameed, who flew to Afghan capital a few days after the Taliban’s takeover, remarked, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” Pakistan’s deep state felt so overconfident and had very high expectations like they presumed that Taliban would take orders from GHQ, Rawalpindi. But now Islamabad is learning in a hard way that Taliban is out of its zone of influence.

It shouldn’t be a surprise for Pakistan to have a hostile regime in Kabul. With the sole exception of the five years of Taliban rule (1996-2001) over Afghanistan, successive governments in Kabul have displayed varying degrees of disaffection towards Islamabad. Afghanistan was the only country that opposed Pakistan’s entry in the United Nations in September 1947. Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who tracks the Taliban, said Afghan Taliban’s confrontation with Pakistan has allowed it to shed its image as a Pakistani proxy group. Islamabad has been the Afghan Taliban’s key foreign sponsor since the mid-1990s, when the extremist group first emerged. “The current tensions give the Taliban a golden opportunity to undo those accusations,” he said. Pakistan is trying to amend its Afghan policy to counter the hostile attitude of Kabul. But these haphazard measures of Pakistan are making the situation even worse.

Pakistan’s air raids on Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targets inside Afghan territory further raised Kabul-Islamabad tensions. The Pakistan Army is building and repairing the border fence along the Durand line to curtain TTP’s cross border movement, but this attempt of the Army is resulting in border clashes. This is exactly what Kabul wants as the Taliban have deliberately concentrated on the border issue to stir up nationalist sentiments, distance themselves from Pakistan, and seek public legitimacy on both religious and nationalist lines. Pakistan is increasing economic pressure to compel the Taliban to review their hostile policies towards them. Pakistan has already tightened rules for transit trade, imposed stringent bank guarantee requirements on Afghan traders for imports, expanded a list of goods Afghanistan can’t import via Pakistan and slapped a 10 percent duty on select commodities imported by Afghanistan. Pakistan has also slowed down the movement of Afghanistan bound shipping containers arriving at Pakistani ports, as per the Taliban officials. But these arm-twisting measures won’t be very effective in the medium to long term as Kabul is seeking to improve trade ties with its neighbours in Central Asia and Iran to weather economic pain and Pakistani coercion. The Taliban have already reached out to Iran recently with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar making a trip seeking more port access and trade concessions from Iran. Iranian access may help cushion the blow of losses from restricted transit trade with Pakistan.

Last year Pakistan decided to expel around 1.7 million Afghan refugees which Islamabad said are staying illegally. Since then, approximately 375,000 Afghans have left Pakistan to an uncertain future. Even those possessing legal documents, such as the Proof of UNHCR registration cards, are being deported forcefully by Pak authorities. On one hand, the unilateral decision to expel the Afghan refugees will erode the little diplomatic goodwill left for Pakistan in Kabul. On the other hand, it will further alienate the already hostile anti-Pakistan public opinion in Afghanistan. Even the strategic thought process of Pakistan regarding Afghanistan is totally flawed. Pakistani policy makers viewed Afghanistan as a place to gain a strategic advantage over India with a military policy known as “the strategic depth” which refers to Pakistan’s use of Afghanistan as a ‘military asset’. For decades, Pakistan has sought to acquire greater strategic depth and secure Afghanistan as a place to regroup in the case of a large-scale military offensive by India. This policy has led Pakistan to meddle in Afghanistan’s domestic politics for long. Inciting deep-seated fears that Pakistan aims only to transform its neighbour into a client state, further worsening the relationship.

Its pursuit of strategic depth policy has contributed to cultivating deep-seated resentment amongst common Afghans against Pakistan that has now come to the forefront. Because Pakistan’s widespread unpopularity in Afghan society has made the Taliban cautious about avoiding being seen as Islamabad’s puppet. Pakistan’s cordial relations with Afghanistan is vital to its foreign policy objectives, this deteriorating relationship needs to be turned around. Islamabad must realise that the Taliban in government is not the same Taliban that they dealt with in the past. The Pak-Afghan relationship cannot continue to be one of a patron and client.

 

 (The author is a columnist and geopolitical analyst for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com)

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