The return of the Taliban to power and the role of Pakistan
The return of the Taliban regime on August 15th has rekindled the centrality of different regional actors, most notably Pakistan. All of them agree on the need for a stable Afghanistan, which can only be achieved through a regional consensus and an agreement with the Taliban. Afghanistan is a scenario in which States in conflict in other contexts, such as the United States, Iran or Russia, can cooperate to achieve common objectives[i].
Pakistan has served as a mediator in the negotiations between the Taliban and the United States in Qatar since they began in 2018. However, Pakistan’s attitude to the Afghan conflict has been contradictory given its cultural proximity to Afghanistan, their long border in common[ii], the need to secure an effective strategy towards India, the internal disputes between Islamists and reformists, the clash between the Executive and the Armed Forces, and the Intelligence Services concerning a security strategy. The above factors have led Islamabad to support the Kabul government and its allies, operating as the main supply route for the ISAF, as well as the headquarters of the insurgent leadership. It has also played a leading role in the birth of the Taliban, its consolidation of power between 1996 and 2001, and its subsequent regrouping.
India is also an exception in that it has not established contacts with the Taliban, owing to its strong relationship with the Afghan government[iii]. It has always relied on Afghanistan as an ally to threaten Pakistan from the rear[iv]. Due to the military and economic superiority of India, coupled with the unresolved border issues in the Kashmir region and the Durand line, Pakistan is on a permanent state of alert. The new scenario requires both states to rethink their traditional confrontational policies.
Over the past 20 years, military interventions in Afghanistan have brought instability to the region: 70,000 lives have been lost in Pakistan as a result of terrorist attacks; there were more than 800 assaults from Afghanistan in 2020. In addition, since Pakistan has received more than 3 million refugees in the last 14 years[v]; it could be said that it is also a victim of the conflict.
The position of Islamabad since the Bonn Conference in 2001 is that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem, but rather a political solution that needs to include all factions, even the Islamist group. Time has proven that the military solution is ineffective.
The Pakistani government has always been aware that, were the Taliban to seize power, it would result in a civil war that would trigger the participation of regional enemies, such as India. The prospect of being drawn into a confrontation on its western front is too disturbing for Islamabad to contemplate any attempt to turn to the Taliban to maintain its influence in Afghanistan.
Several Afghan leaders have visited Islamabad in recent days as Pakistan holds the view that there should be a compromise in Kabul[vi]. In May 2020, the parties signed an agreement, but this commitment to peace was only partially fulfilled, because the signatories knew that the Americans would eventually withdraw in May 2021, although the date was postponed until August 31st. Almost 15 days before, the situation changed drastically when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, and the democratically elected government fled abroad.
The US-trained Afghan army was far better prepared and equipped than the Taliban -over a billion dollars is estimated to have been invested. It is very important for the Pakistani government to understand that the Afghans do not accept foreign forces, to the extent that there was no resistance[vii]. The perception is that the US went into Afghanistan to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and just guaranteed the safe withdrawal of its troops. Washington may no longer be interested in the current imbalance.
Official circles in Pakistan argue that the current Taliban is different from the one led by Mullah Mohammed Omar in that they are now more pragmatic, having understood the importance of gaining political influence, albeit time needs to reaffirm this stance. Pakistan hopes that the Taliban has realized the concerns of the international community and that it will protect the rights of minorities, women, and others. Women's rights are very important in Islam and must be preserved at all costs. Pakistan is aware of the apprehensions but expects the situation to be different this time.
The security situation in Afghanistan is serious, and although the Taliban made rapid advances, the northern resistance has reportedly regained control in the province of Baghlan[viii]. On August 19th, coinciding with Afghanistan’s independence day, the first meeting was held in the province of Panshir between the Taliban and Ahmad Massoud[ix], one of the leaders of the National Resistance Front and son of mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud[x].
Ahmad has aligned with former Vice President Amrullah Saleh as well as with former members of the ANSDF, residents of the Panshir Valley, and a large number of displaced people[xi]. If the Taliban remains in power, it will impose its laws, thus attracting a larger influx of displaced people to the valley, who might join the resistance. Certain countries, groups and coallitions that profit from wars and need a conflict might take advantage of this situation.
Another likely scenario is that Panshir will be besieged by the Taliban and a major attack will be launched, since the area is surrounded by the Islamist group, and access routes may be cut off to prevent the distribution of aid and supplies. These factors reveal an unfolding humanitarian disaster that will have far-reaching implications for stability and peace in South and Central Asia.
Silvana Lorena Barrios is a political scientist, lecturer and researcher on the Middle East and Arab and Islamic countries at the University of Buenos Aires. She is a member of the Working Team on Asia of the CARI Committee on Asian Affairs.
[i] Ruiz Arévalo, J. (May 2021). The Afghan peace process. Last chance? Framework Document 06/2021. Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE).
[ii] The border has an approximate extension of 2,600 kilometers.
[iii] India, for years, has assisted in training Afghan officials and providing humanitarian aid, and has rejected the Taliban, which it considers an ally of Pakistan.
[iv] Ruiz Arévalo, J. (December 2020). The role of regional actors in the Afghan peace process. Number 16 of the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies Magazine (IEEE).
[v] Bañez, G. (August 2021). "There is no military way out: the strategy of the Pakistani ambassador who worked with Afghanistan during the US invasion of 2001”.