Dealing with the neighbors: Pakistan’s Afghan experience

Ambassador Asif Durrani is an able diplomat from the Pakistani diplomatic corps. An experienced hand on Afghanistan and Iran who understands the subtleties of dealing with, not just Afghans, but the global community as well. I have known him through the years where I sat down with him on my PTV World show, Dialogue, and we discussed everything from US pullout from Afghanistan to Taliban’s government, regional security and global politics.
Since Ambassador Durrani has assumed the office of Pakistan’s special envoy to Afghanistan the relations have seen a roller coaster ride, yet again. Ambassador Durrani’s approach is, and must be, as his predecessors focus was, to keep the Afghans engaged and address the issues through diplomacy and cooperation.
Afghanistan has been in turmoil for over four decades. The country has seen ravaging wars and foreign invasions. Before we discuss how Pakistan should deal with the Afghan issue, it is important to know how the Afghan society itself is tangled into multiple domestic and international issues. Then we go on to understand their approach towards Pakistan and finally how Pakistan should respond to the ever-changing Afghan political landscape. The Taliban interim government has a hill task to do at home and abroad. And it surely doesn’t look ready to address it.
Domestically, Afghanistan is facing crisis on many levels. Women rights, general human rights, security and economy are among the few but key issues concerning Afghanistan. Much of the debate on social media these days about Afghanistan is either blaming the pervious Ghani and Karzai governments or criticizing Pakistan for the prevailing ills. This trend isn’t new to Afghan politics. This isn’t even new to Asian or global politics either. Most of the incumbent governments blame their predecessors for the ills they face. It’s an easy way to wriggle out of the political charges and dust off the responsibilities.
Taliban are doing the same. They have mixed several political gimmicks together. They have learnt that blaming the past governments would give them cushion domestically. And through blaming Pakistan, which they have taken after Previous Afghan officials like Ghani, Amraullah Saleh, Hamdullah Mohib & Co, would give them the “anti-Pakistan” sentiment left over by the Ghani regime. Taliban make this cocktail and use it to their convenience.
Nonetheless, Afghan masses are aware of the ground realities because they live through it. They witness the oppressive Taliban policies. Women have been barred from working, girls’ education is banned in many places and job opportunities for they young and bright are limited and very few. In these testing times a breath of fresh air for the Afghan public is neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan hosts the largest number of refuges globally. It hosts millions of Afghans who have crossed over to Pakistan evading war and terrorism. They come to Pakistan for better living and better facilities. Their conditions in Pakistan and the quality of life provided by Pakistani authorities is debatable but overall the Pakistani hospitality heads in the right direction. While Pakistan manages this all, the opportunities for Pakistan to engage with an interim Taliban setup; wary of the global norms, cooperation and oppressive in nature, are limited.
The biggest issue at the moment for Pakistan and the region is terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Pakistani foreign office, top military and security officials have been vocal about Afghan soil being used by terrorist organizations like TTP and ISKP. Recent bombing in Bajaur claimed by ISKP has given the region another jolt.
The terrorism issue is multi-pronged. It’s mainly an Afghan issue that has its roots inside the Taliban structures. It is imperative to understand that The Taliban body is not monolithic. It has several factions when it comes to addressing the militancy. Taliban have multiple fronts to watch. Every faction within Taliban addresses its own issues according to its own leverage within the organization and with other militant groups. Therefore, Taliban do not have a blanket approach or same approach across the board towards TTP & ISKP.
Pakistani authorities seem to understand this paradox well. Therefore, the best option for Pakistani diplomatic corps is to keep the Afghans engaged on multiple levels. Taliban need to be given a clear message that the terrorist organizations must not and cannot keep using the Afghan soil against Pakistan. Taliban interim government has to take the responsibility of keeping a check on what goes on the Afghan soil.
Beyond the terrorism issue there are ample opportunities for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the economic domain. The total trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has grown in fiscal year 2022-2023 by 12 percent reaching 1861 million. It has shown uptick but it’s still very low as compared to the economic trends in the region.
Recent protocol to establish railway project between Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan has tremendous economic potential. There are more opportunities than challenges between Pakistan and Afghanistan and few irritants that need to be addressed. The sooner the better, for both countries.

Dr. Taimur Shamil holds a PhD in International Relations. He is an academic based in New York. He tweets @ShamilTaimur

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