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Is Pakistan the victor in Afghanistan, or a part of its spoils?

C Raja Mohan writes: The strategy of using violent religious extremism to control Afghanistan over the last five decades has also deeply affected Pakistan's polity, which is now under the shadow of the Taliban's pre-modern ideology.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: September 8, 2021 8:14:05 am
Geography has given Pakistan a pivotal role in Afghanistan. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Three sets of events last week highlight Pakistan’s special importance in Afghanistan after the Taliban victory. One was the appearance of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, in Kabul. Another was a (virtual) meeting of top regional diplomats from Afghanistan’s neighbours (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China) convened by Pakistan’s special representative on Afghanistan, Mohammed Sadiq. Meanwhile, many major regional and international leaders interested in Afghanistan are picking up the phone to call Prime Minister Imran Khan or contact the Army chief, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa. Delhi should expect even more Pakistan-centred political and diplomatic activity on Afghanistan in the days ahead.

Does this intense activity translate into concrete outcomes in favour of Pakistan? Frenzied motion does not always compute as purposeful movement. Pakistan has an uphill task in converting its tactical advantages in Afghanistan into strategic gains.

Geography has given Pakistan a pivotal role in Afghanistan. Yet, Rawalpindi has been unable to turn it into sustainable political sway over Afghanistan. Neither the creation of Afghan proxies nor the massive assistance from the great powers has helped Pakistan transcend its structural limitations in Afghanistan. The story this time is unlikely to be any different.

To be sure, much of the world is turning to Pakistan to intercede on their behalf with the new rulers in Afghanistan. Whether it is the evacuation of citizens, limiting refugee flows, or containing terrorism, Pakistan is presenting itself as the one-stop-shop for Afghanistan-related issues. But Pakistan’s ability to leverage the international interest depends on its ability to control the internal dynamic in Afghanistan. Therein lies the rub. The gap between Pakistan’s reach and its grasp in Afghanistan, however, has been impossible to bridge.

For all the international media attention to Hameed’s visit to Kabul, there is nothing unusual about an intelligence chief heading to a nation in political turbulence to secure his government’s interests. CIA Director William Burns was also in Kabul recently to talk to the Taliban leaders.

The purpose of the two visits too was different. Burns was there to seek assurances on the safe evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan and explore the potential for future engagement with the Taliban. As a neighbour deeply involved in Afghanistan’s troubled evolution since its independence, Pakistan has much larger stakes in Afghanistan than any other country.

The ISI’s role in Afghanistan too has been expansive — in helping create the Taliban, providing it sanctuary after it was ousted from power at the end of 2001, helping it gain military ground in Afghanistan in the last two decades, and lending diplomatic support for the legitimisation of the Taliban.

While there are many issues on Hameed’s agenda in Kabul, one particular Pakistani objective has gotten special attention — to mediate between different Taliban factions on power-sharing and launch a sustainable new Afghan government. The ISI’s activism in shaping the next government in Kabul is part of Pakistan’s long tradition of messing with Afghanistan’s internal politics.

It also reminds us of Pakistan’s difficulty in structuring a durable arrangement in Kabul. Pakistan is strong enough to destabilise Afghanistan, but not powerful enough to construct a stable political order across the Durand Line.

This is certainly not the first time that a Pakistani intervention has “won” in Afghanistan. In the mid-1970s, Pakistan in partnership with the Shah of Iran succeeded in moving the Afghan strongman Daud Khan away from his communist friends at home and in Moscow. But the victory barely lasted a few years until the Afghan communists ousted Daud Khan in a coup in the late 1970s.

Pakistan “won” again in 1989 when it pushed the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan with a bloody insurgency backed by the West and got the Mujahideen to control Kabul by 1992. But the Mujahideen soon got locked into massive civil war and Pakistan had to bring in the Taliban to “win one more time” in Kabul during 1996. The Taliban government itself was ousted as it invited the wrath of America after the 9/11 attacks organised by Osama bin Ladin from his Afghan sanctuary.

In the 21st century, Rawalpindi’s persistent destabilisation and the US’s inability to prevent Pakistan from playing both sides of the terror street have led to the inevitable unravelling of the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan. There is no question that the Pakistan army is now in the driver’s seat in Kabul. But can Rawalpindi drive the Afghan state and society anywhere, let alone in a sensible direction?

Pakistan is already running into the familiar problem in Kabul. It is one thing to get the Taliban into Kabul, but it is entirely another to organise a credible new government there. It is now three weeks since the fall of the Ghani government and the factions of the Taliban are struggling to arrive at a new government. There is speculation that Pakistan is helping to sort out the issues and a new government will be announced this week. How cohesive it might be is a different matter.

If you think of the current negotiations as similar to the formation of coalition governments in democracies, the political delay and difficulty in Kabul seem natural. But the problem in Kabul is deeper. While the various factions were united in ousting foreign military presence, there is little agreement among them on how to govern Afghanistan.

Issues of women’s rights, amnesty to those who were part of the previous government, accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities in the new government and responding to international concerns are all deeply divisive. Equally contentious are the problems of managing the broken finances of the government and developing credible strategies of economic development.

If Pakistan’s record of interventions is not impressive, the difficulty of turning Afghanistan into a coherent entity has challenged all the regimes in Kabul since the monarchy was deposed in 1973. Since then, a series of governments — of various political colours, from socialist to Communist and Islamist — backed by different great powers and massive foreign military interventions could not stitch the country together.

That Pakistan can perform this miracle — with the support of China — is the current conventional wisdom. But the messiness of the real world will intervene sooner than later and remind us that political miracles are rare.

It is quite tempting to believe today that the spoils of the Afghan war belong to the presumed victor — Pakistan. But it is also possible to argue that the opposite is true — that Pakistan is now part of the Afghan spoils. The strategy of using decades of violent religious extremism to control Afghanistan over the last five decades has also deeply affected Pakistan’s polity that is now under the shadow of the Taliban’s pre-modern ideology.

Meanwhile, the grand political obsession with destabilising its neighbours has made Pakistan’s economy fall well behind that of Bangladesh. India’s GDP is 10 times larger than that of Pakistan today. Rawalpindi’s “victory” in Afghanistan might make it a bigger nuisance for India and the region but is unlikely to reverse the steady relative decline of Pakistan’s comprehensive national power over the last few decades.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 7, 2021 under the title ‘Pakistan’s Kabul syndrome’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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