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Afghanistan and Pakistan are in a strategic embrace that cannot have a happy ending

Although Pakistan is now keen to provide the Taliban-led Afghan government political and strategic support, it could soon become too much to handle.

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A theocratic oligarchy consisting mostly of United Nations-designated terrorists is going to hold the reins of power in Afghanistan. To oversee the formation of an ‘interim’ government, Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed had flown to Kabul. The interim government had even been announced but the sudden cancellation of the swearing-in shows there are tussles in the upper echelons of the Taliban, which Pakistan must handle with care. Lack of experience in governance is another issue that Pakistan is trying to solve, with reports indicating that guidance will be provided by ISI-nominated Pakistani bureaucrats, technocrats, professional military, and police personnel. For sure, the Punjabi Musalman from Pakistan will, sooner rather than later, rub the wrong side of the Afghan Pathan.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are now politically and strategically inseparable. They are both backed by China, which has announced a $31 million financial assistance that can, at best, provide limited relief, unless followed by continuous and larger benevolence. The international institutions that are mostly under the United States’ control are unlikely to be of help, except for providing humanitarian relief through the UN and other agencies.

Also Read: Not Taliban talks, India must stand up for Afghan resistance despite Panjshir fall

Pakistan’s burden

For the Taliban, the lack of economic support makes governance an uphill task. Having tasted material well-being and religious freedom of some sort or the other, the urban Afghan does not easily brook religious extremism — a factor that can upend the Taliban. Rural areas of Afghanistan may be relatively tolerant of the Taliban but if their livelihoods are hampered and repression is the style of governance, the Taliban will soon find themselves stretched to maintain control and stem the growth of resistance to their rule.

Currently, the signs of resistance lie in the Panjshir valley, where the forces led by former vice-president Amrullah Saleh and former defence minister Ahmad Shah Massoud have staged a tactical withdrawal and taken to the hills. Protests that had a large women’s representation have been met by brutal force. However, as repression increases over time, the growth of resistance forces, based on the complex mosaic of Afghanistan’s ethnic, religious, and tribal identities, will come to the fore. Increased involvement of Pakistani forces operating covertly can be expected. This, in turn, can stoke the Afghans’ fears of domination by Pakistan.

There are reports of the widespread use of Pakistani drones for surveillance and armed attacks. To most Afghans, this could mean that Pakistan has replaced the US as their repressor, but one without the economic largesse that provided fuel for governance. China could replace the US and couple with Russia to provide some degree of economic succour. But without an organisational structure that is populated by human capital capable of executing projects and schemes aimed to benefit the populace, there are limited chances of foreign aid bringing about positive outcomes. The Taliban might succeed in getting some persons or groups from the old administration back to work as they have managed for some of the police forces in Kabul. But it will be difficult to make up the drain of experienced people who have fled the country.

Also Read: Stop negotiated peace settlement with Taliban right away, it’s still a terrorist group

Power struggle in military

Meanwhile, rumblings of a power struggle within the military hierarchy of Pakistan and growing frictions with the civilian political leadership are evident. According to human rights activist Amjad Ayub Mirza, living in exile in the UK, the ISI chief is allegedly being investigated for charges relating to his conduct, including consumption of liquor and cavorting with female journalists during his stay at Hotel Serena in Kabul; proceeding to Kabul without informing the Chief of Army Staff; and maintaining relations with proscribed terrorist groups within Pakistan. The ISI chief, who enjoys the support of Prime Minister Imran Khan, if approved for command of a Corps, could replace Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The ascent of the Taliban to power could threaten Pakistan’s fragile internal polity and even the possibility of a coup cannot be ruled out. There have never been any free lunches for foreigners in Afghanistan, and Pakistan cannot be an exception.

No government – whether interim or permanent – will likely weaken the Taliban’s extremist ideological predispositions. Although, the group itself has made promises to do so, even as it keeps its allegiance to ‘Islamic values’ and ‘Sharia laws’, both of which are open to wide interpretations. Resistance to this from the Afghan populace would be boosted by the populace having experienced a lifestyle relatively distanced from religion for two decades. Attempts to roll back towards religious obscurantism will be resisted, which will surely invite repression that might quell the uprisings in the short term but would likely fail as a policy in the long run.

The international community is likely to remain divided over the issue of recognition and support to the government in Kabul. The humanitarian crisis may get worse and Pakistan will find itself at the receiving end of large-scale refugee movements that will upset its fragile internal political and economic stability.

Russia and China would be wary of the repercussions to their underbellies in Central Asia and Xinjiang. Stabilising Afghanistan through support via Pakistan is a doomed project. Direct involvement by either is a minefield they would prefer to avoid. The Iranians are encumbered in their relations with the Taliban by the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey can also act as a conduit for Russia and China but would be wary of repercussions to its relations with the West that are already rough.

Also Read: In Afghanistan, extremists are targeting extremists. But the one in Kabul has no vision either

The ‘Afghan’ virus

Given the current trajectory, Pakistan’s political system is likely to be burdened with the Afghan issue and its variants produced by civil-military tensions and internal power struggle within the military hierarchy.

India’s Afghanistan policy must be focused right now on political and diplomatic support for resistance forces that are likely to grow with time. A Pakistan hit by the Afghan virus may not find it easy to manage the repercussions of the Indian reaction to Pakistan-supported terrorism in Kashmir. At the same time, India must not take its eye off the northern borders and China’s incursions in its neighbourhood.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are in a strategic embrace that cannot have happy endings as the intolerance for foreigners will sooner than later raise its head. Pakistan has no chance of staying its course of seeking domination. On the contrary, it may be digging its own grave. The price will be paid by the Afghan people but that has been their misfortune for millennia. What we are witnessing is an iteration of the truism – history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.

Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is from the 40th NDA Course. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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