AFGHANISTAN, the fabled 'Graveyard of Empires' has captured news headlines and grabbed the attention of the international political community since the US withdrawal announced by the previous Donald Trump administration in 2020 nearly after more than 20 years since the US militarily intervened in the country in 2001. In the midst of US withdrawal, speculations are rife especially regarding the role to be played by other emerging key players in the region such as Russia, China and not to mention the neighbouring country of Afghanistan in the south i.e., Pakistan and increasingly India.
At this point, an op-ed in The Washington Post of 22 June 2021 by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan titled "Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan, but we will not host US bases" couldn't help but attract the attention of the authors of this article as an indication of Pakistani interests and attitude towards the new situation.
The fear and anxiety behind writing this op-ed to the American audience and pleading for every kind of cooperation with the US in Afghanistan (except military) is that Pakistan, after refusing to host US bases, risks losing strategic clout in Afghanistan and fears that it might be left to face a post-withdrawal potential civil war in Afghanistan alone. Islamabad seems to have noticed lately that its relationship with the US was based only on its military geostrategic importance to the latter vis-a-vis Afghanistan. Given Khan's explicit statement of not allying with the US on military action, Pakistan might lose its importance in US strategy.
In a recent interview with The New York Times on 25 June 2021, the Prime Minister said that after the US pull-out Pakistan would want a "civilized relationship" with the US like that of "U.S. and Britain, or actually between U.S. and India right now". Further, when Khan was asked whether Pakistan will continue to have any strategic relevance to the US once the withdrawal is completed, Khan replied, "I don't know, really.
I haven't thought about it in that way, that Pakistan should have some strategic relevance to the U.S. I mean, states really have relationships based on common interests." It points out a shift in Pakistan's vision towards its relations with the US. Instead of the geo-strategic, Islamabad now seeks to promote its geo-economic importance and wants broader relations with the US.
This was evident in a recent interview on Geo News by Imran Khan's National Security Advisor (NSA) Moeed Yusuf, who while speaking about the absence of contact between President Biden and PM Khan emphasized that if there are talks between the two countries they must go beyond the Afghanistan issue and include bilateral relations-economic, trade and commerce.
The NSA further complained that despite Islamabad's significant contribution to Afghanistan, the Kabul civil government, the US and the world are pointing fingers towards Pakistan and blaming them for the violence in Afghanistan. In addition, as evident from the recent interviews of both the Pakistani Foreign Minister and the NSA, Islamabad has become wary and increasingly concerned of the recent 'active' Indian role in Afghanistan including New Delhi's overtures to the Taliban.
However, there were early signs that these developments would take place in case Pakistan continued to follow its traditional strategy and the current path in Afghanistan.
Therefore, Islamabad should have expected both- the blame for all the violence in Afghanistan and the entry of India into talks with the Taliban. Further, Pakistan's firm position on not hosting the US bases only exacerbates the issue. The US itself now seems less concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and as it pulls out its forces in haste, Pakistan is worried that it might be left alone to face an imminent civil war in Afghanistan. In case of a civil war, Pakistan will face a huge influx of refugees and therefore encounter economic instability once again.
Another reason behind Khan's seeming displeasure with the US might be seen in the context of the growing strategic Sino-Pakistan relations. In addition to Pakistan's economic as well as military alliance and dependence on China, Islamabad's crippling 294 billion dollars debt to its all-weather ally (as of December 30, 2020) and with expectations and speculations of an increased role of Beijing in Afghanistan post-US withdrawal [given China's role in the Afghan peace process along with Russia and the US and Chinese indications of extending the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan] it would make sense for Pakistan to side with China. Hence, Imran Khan's cost-benefit analysis of Pakistan's relationship with the US and muted hostility with the latter in the form of denial of bases in the op-ed should also be seen as a response to and an implicit acknowledgement of increasing Chinese importance in Afghanistan.
This acknowledgement of China over the US was also reflected in Khan's recent interview to China Global Television Network (CGTN) where he mentioned the 'very special relationship' spanning 70 years between Pakistan and China which won't be tampered despite 'Western (US) pressure' and in the same interview, the Pakistani PM also took a jibe at the US-led Quad including India as one of the major drivers of conflict and rivalry in South Asia.
Khan's statements from the op-ed such as Pakistan's readiness to be 'a partner for peace in Afghanistan' as well as appeals to the Afghan civilian government to 'stop blaming Pakistan' can be seen as attempts at bridging the chasm and deep mistrust of Kabul given Islamabad's ties with the Mujahideen and Taliban since the Cold War era of 1980. But the emphasis on 'partner for peace' can also be seen as a response to India's intervention and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the confidence and goodwill enjoyed by New Delhi in the eyes of Kabul (something which Pakistan is seeking right now- hence 'stop blaming Pakistan'). In addition, the entry of India seems to have upset Pakistan's equation in Afghanistan.
The 'India' connection with the op-ed becomes clear as it comes in the heels of (deliberately or coincidentally) Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi's interview with the Afghanistan channel Tolo News. In the interview, Qureshi mentioned 'India's seemingly oversized role ('larger than it ought to be') in Afghanistan despite not being a border country and even went on to accuse New Delhi of 'carrying out terrorist activities' from Afghan soil.
Although Qureshi later received flack for his un-diplomatic statements, yet the former's insecurities and Khan's insistence in the op-ed on winning the trust of Kabul can be seen as Pakistani concern of India's role and popularity in Afghanistan as a credible partner. This is evident in the reception of Indian aid in terms of providing vital supplies of food and medicines; infrastructural development, initiation of small and community-led development projects and in the field of education including 500 annual scholarships and training of Afghan civil servants.
Yet in the strategic front including shaping the future of Afghanistan, India doesn't enjoy the position of other players like China, the US and Russia (including Pakistan) given its absence in the Doha peace talks with the Taliban and the Extended 'Troika' Statement of March 2021 (mentioned in the op-ed). Despite the above advantage enjoyed by Pakistan over India, the Op-Ed's insistence on winning back the trust of the Kabul government is an indication of the deep-seated suspicion about the Pakistan government in the eyes of the general Afghan psyche.
This can be witnessed from the 2016 Congressional statement of US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad who, while condemning Pakistan unequivocally as 'sponsors of terrorism' had stated- "We need to look at strengthening cooperation with India on terrorism and counterterrorism and on strengthening Afghanistan...it is not out of the question that Pakistan might reconsider...we will have to look at other ways with others who share our perspective on terrorism, particularly India." Pakistan desperately needs the legitimacy of trust from Kabul as well as Afghan people in order to fulfil the Op-Ed's aims of 'promoting economic connectivity and regional trade' with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Another interesting point in the op-ed is Khan's attitude towards the Taliban. Although the author recounts the civilian and military 'collateral damage' borne by Pakistan as a result of Islamabad's 'mistake by choosing sides between warring Afghan parties' , yet as per Khan the Taliban 'must be included in any (post-conflict Afghan) government for it to succeed'.
Such a conciliatory note must be contrasted by the decision made by the Pakistani administration to seal the 2, 640 km Durand Line boundary with Afghanistan for 'safeguarding national interests' as well as preventing the influx of Pashtun refugees in the aftermath of a possible Taliban take-over. At the same time, Khan criticised the US withdrawal as one of the core reasons behind the increase in the Taliban's confidence. In addition, the Pakistani NSA labelled New Delhi's recent engagement with the Taliban as 'shameless'.
While Pakistan had a historic role in the training of and strategic relations with the Taliban, yet the above actions and Khan's mention of Pakistani casualties indicate growing differences between the two 'convenient allies'.
However, despite this antagonism, Khan's mention of the Talibani participation in Afghan governance is a sign of Pakistan's acknowledgement of the importance of its ally in the US post-withdrawal Afghanistan as well as a tacit attempt to pacify the militia group for the strategic safety of the Afghan-Pak border.
In addition, the Pakistani military establishment (since the Zia ul-Haq era) and right-wing groups such as Tehreek e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) harbouring secret sympathies for the Afghan jihad i.e. two powerful sections united in their support for the Taliban would also deter Khan from taking any proactive actions against the Taliban (particularly right-wing groups would cheer for a complete Taliban victory in Afghanistan).
Finally, towards the end, the op-ed speaks of how peace fostered by economic and regional development would prevent the re-emergence of the 19th-century Great Game situation in Afghanistan. But it would appear that the inconsistencies between Khan's opinions and Pakistan's strategic concerns and choices, tied with the US, China, India and Taliban would set the stage for a new Great Game West (borrowing from Bertil Lintner's Great Game East between India's North-East, China and Myanmar) of the 21st century.
By arrangement with Kashmir Observer