January 9, 2023
ISLAMABAD – WITH the Taliban having banned their education, Pakistan can allow Afghan female students to complete their degrees in Pakistan. This would allow the country to embark on a new Afghan policy, which it direly needs after its recent disappointments with the Taliban regime.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy has remained strategic-centric, which needs a radical transformation. A new Afghan policy should focus on a broader engagement with the Afghan people and the regime in power. In the recent past, civilian and military leaders made tall claims about geoeconomic insertions in the country’s foreign policy priorities, but in reality, the whole design remained geostrategic in nature. The reason for this lies in the simplistic view that both come at each other’s cost. But a state can adjust both within its vision, as geopolitics and geoeconomics are not different entities at all.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has compounded Pakistan’s security challenges. It has caused frustration among the architects of the Afghan policy as the country has not yet obtained the cooperation it had expected from the Taliban. The state institutions must adopt a cooperation-based approach toward the Taliban.
The Taliban are a reality, and they are not going to disappear from the scene, at least in the near future. They seek to develop their political capital in the region through economic cooperation and engagement. However, their policies towards women, political and ethnic opposition, and terrorist networks will continue raising new domestic and international challenges for them. There are equal chances of them bringing about a mid- to long-term order or disorder in the country, depending on their attitude and internal consensus. Pakistan may have little influence left now to guide or advise the Taliban.
People-to-people contact with practical cooperation should be a vital component of a fresh approach.
Pakistan needs a delicate approach towards Afghanistan, which should not be based on appeasement or hostility. A hostile approach could aggravate the bitterness in bilateral relations, and in case the Taliban regime succeeds in establishing order, it can bring Afghanistan to where it was before their takeover. If the Taliban become weakened, they have the full potential to transform again into an insurgent movement and start exporting terrorism globally. In the worst-case scenario, Pakistan would be the first country to be affected.
Apart from the TTP, their closest ally, the Afghan Taliban have their support base in the bordering regions. Many commanders within the Taliban support the TTP’s desire to establish a tribal emirate in their fashion. In such a complex scenario, what should Pakistan do? The National Security Committee has rightly posited that the state will deal directly with the Taliban regime regarding the TTP and border security issues. There is no need to repeat that Pakistan should not take any dictation from the Taliban that the TTP is the country’s internal issue, but at the same time, political leaders and commentators should avoid issuing hostile statements against the Taliban. Such statements make the bilateral engagement process difficult and increase the risk of terrorism. It is also vital that the state refrain from giving any indication of resuming talks with the TTP, as it indicates the state’s weakness.
A cooperation-based approach must revolve around five components, including border security, counterterrorism, economic cooperation, joint transnational engagements, and people-to-people contacts. All these components should amalgamate with each other, and a constant review must be part of the policy.
For the security and counterterrorism components, a bilateral engagement formula was agreed upon between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2018 called the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). The initiative’s primary focus was on taking effective action against fugitives and irreconcilable elements posing security threats to either of the two countries. Both sides agreed that the two countries shall avoid violations, whether aerial or otherwise, of each other’s territory, apart from avoiding blame games.
It is understandable that APAPPS was not rigorously implemented by both sides at that time, but with the Taliban regime it is a different scenario, and the initiative can be revamped on the pattern of the Doha agreement between the Taliban and the US. The bilateral and transnational economic engagement was an old dream of the Pakistani establishment, which needs to be rationalised according to changing geopolitics.
However, people-to-people contact should be a vital component of the policy and built around something other than the old mantra of religious, cultural, and historical ties between the two countries. The component should be developed on a framework of confidence-building measures and practical cooperation among the citizens of the two countries. Offering education to female students in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan universities would not be a culture shock for Afghan students. The new public universities in bordering regions can take up the task effectively. It will have multiple advantages, from meeting the financial needs of the suffering public universities to enhancing Pakistan’s international image. Similarly, revamping the idea of setting up trade centres and medical cities along the border is also important for both sides. It will not only help Afghan citizens get better health facilities but also reduce the appeal of the terrorist organisations in these areas, apart from other multiple advantages.
Most crucial is that bilateral engagement should be done through formal diplomatic, political, and strategic channels rather than through informal channels using tribal elders or religious scholars. The clergy and tribal connections can be used only for confidence-building measures, and their formal engagement in any security-related issue must be avoided. The TTP and other militant groups have found their supporters among them, which usually side with them rather than the state.
The policy should not have any favourites across the political spectrum within the Taliban and beyond.
The question is, who should frame the new Afghan policy? It is often advocated that parliament should take the lead in policy formulation, but the state of the current parliament is well known, and it would act, at most, as a rubber stamp of the establishment. There is a need for a broader consultation among political parties, civil society, and security institutions.
The writer is a security analyst.