Pakistan’s predicament in Afghanistan is best summed up by Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism: “In this world, there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is the real tragedy”. For the last 20 years, Pakistan has done everything possible to get the Taliban back in the driving seat in Kabul. Now, when Pakistan is about to achieve what it has always wanted, there are doubts being expressed on whether an outright Taliban victory might not end up being a disaster, or a real tragedy, not just for Afghanistan but also for Pakistan and, perhaps, the rest of the region; even the rest of the world.
Of course, the Pakistanis deny that they want the Taliban monopolising power in Afghanistan. But are their denials credible? After all, for the last 20 years, the Pakistanis have also denied that they were supporting, sponsoring, giving sanctuary to the Taliban, even supervising and participating in their operations. Why should anyone, therefore, take their latest denials seriously, especially since they fly in the face of logic?
Ever since the US-led military operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, and especially after the Taliban resurgence around 2004-05, both Islamabad and Rawalpindi have rather disingenuously advocated that there is no military solution to Afghanistan. And yet, throughout this time, the Pakistani ‘Deep State’ has worked assiduously towards imposing a military solution through the Taliban. It isn’t as if the Americans or their Western allies were unaware of the Pakistani double-games and double-speak. But for some inexplicable reason, all that the strongest military and economic force in the history of humankind was able to do was plead with the Pakistanis to ‘do more’. Some half-hearted, half-baked, half-measures were undertaken to force the Pakistanis to stop their support for the Taliban. But even these were never really followed through.
Clearly, the Pakistanis seemed to have had a much better measure of the Americans than the Americans had of themselves. They were also able to play the Americans much better than the other way round. The result is before us. The Americans have been defeated—no amount of spin or window-dressing can hide this reality—and are withdrawing. And, once again, the Pakistanis are trying to play them, this time to get whatever they can before the Americans quit. The old adage in Afghanistan—if you have come, what have you brought with you? If you are leaving, what are you leaving behind?—is once again coming into play; only this time it is Pakistan which will seek to maximise its benefit by both playing victim and at the same time seeking to strike bargains—economic, military and political—with the US.
Look at it from Pakistan’s point of view and it is clear that a military solution in favour of the Taliban is the best outcome, for now at least. Everything else is either a pie in the sky, or else unpalatable and therefore unacceptable, not just to the Pakistanis but also to the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The search for a negotiated political solution in Afghanistan is really nothing more than a pipedream. For the Taliban and Pakistan, talk of the ‘political solution’ is just a way to keep stringing along the Americans and the Afghan government—in Pakistani parlance, making them chase the tail-lights of a truck. The chances of any political solution were always infinitesimally small because the chasm between the ‘Islamic Republic’ and ‘Islamic Emirate’ is simply unbridgeable. This is also why no ‘power sharing agreement’ will ever work.
Why would the Taliban agree to share power when they can grab it all? All the talk of Taliban suffering war fatigue is only self-serving nonsense with absolutely no evidence to back it. Even if in the unlikely event that, at this late stage, the Taliban agree to share power, they will only want to do it on their terms, under their control, and under the rubric of the Emirate not the Republic. In other words, the Taliban will show their ‘magnanimity’ by throwing some crumbs at their adversaries but only if they get to call all the shots, something the Afghan government is unlikely to accept, not without a fight anyway.
The idea of an interim government is also unworkable. It was tried in 1992 when a road map was also signed on by all protagonists. The solemn assurances that were given, including in Mecca, were observed more in their violation. That interim government had a prime minister, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, who couldn’t ever enter Kabul and who then bombed Kabul into rubble with the support of his Pakistani patrons. Another such interim government will suffer a similar fate. In fact, chances are that even if the Taliban accept such a government, they will use it only to get their proverbial nose in the tent before they take over the entire tent.
If the political solution and interim government is a pipedream, the talk of a regional solution involving Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, Central Asian states, and India, is not just completely unrealistic, but also a recipe for disaster. Such a regional approach has been tried multiple times since the 1990s. It didn’t work then, it won’t work now. Each of the regional players have their own interests, which are not just in conflict with the interests of one or more of the other regional players, but also not necessarily in conformity with the interests of Afghanistan and Afghan people.
The Military Solution
With political and diplomatic solutions being unworkable or unfeasible, it is clear that the civil war that has been underway for over a decade now will be fought with more ferocity. Unless the Afghan government folds up within weeks of a complete US withdrawal, the civil war will stretch for months, maybe even years. A prolonged civil war is clearly not in Pakistan’s interest. Pakistan’s grand plans of connectivity and becoming the hub of Central Asian trade and transit, making the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor a viable project that starts paying for itself, and generally gaining both politically and strategically from a friendly and peaceful Afghanistan, will come a cropper. Worse, a long and bloody civil war will spill over into Pakistan, what with refugees streaming in and the blowback of Afghanistan’s instability impacting Pakistan’s security.
There are only two ways Pakistan can try and prevent this. First, Pakistan can lean real hard on the Taliban to reconcile—agree to a power-sharing arrangement (which as we said earlier is easier said than done) under an interim government (again an unworkable proposition even if it became possible) and then develop a consensus on the constitutional structure and political character of the Afghan state. Apart from the fact that Pakistan hasn’t managed to achieve all this in its own country, expecting it to achieve this in Afghanistan is simply delusional.
Even otherwise, Pakistan would be chary of doing this because it wouldn’t want to push the Taliban and other assorted Islamists too hard, lest they turn against Pakistan. After all, their dependence on Pakistan has reduced considerably in the last year or two, and will reduce even more after the US withdraws. If Rawalpindi tries to play hard-ball, the Taliban will push back. It has its own leverages—Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates and perhaps also other ethnic insurgent groups—that will be unleashed against Pakistan.
The other option before Pakistan is to double-down in its military support to the Taliban. This is exactly what Pakistan did in the 1990s and is likely to repeat in the 2020s. In fact, this time around, the Pakistani assistance to Taliban war effort will be even greater than what it was in the past because Pakistan would want the opposition to Taliban swept aside as soon as possible. As said earlier, Pakistan simply cannot afford a prolonged civil war in Afghanistan. Of course, if the Afghan National Security Forces fold up, then Pakistan can pretend its hands are clean.
A Self-serving Narrative
All the doomsday scenarios and dire warnings being aired in Pakistan about the horrors that will befall it if Taliban win or Afghanistan descends into chaos actually help the Pakistan’s ruling military establishment to create a narrative of how they are in the eye of the storm and need greater international assistance. That Pakistanis have actually stirred up the approaching storm and didn’t lift a little finger to stop the Taliban resurgence is, needless to say, conveniently glossed over. In any case, none of these warnings will have any impact on the policy of the military establishment, which thinks that it has the future all worked out.
The way the Pakistanis see it, apart from the strategic, political and economic benefits that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will bring, Pakistan will also be better placed to crush the restiveness in the Pashtun areas that is being spearheaded by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. Diplomatically, the Pakistani military establishment’s calculation will be that as long as there is no terrorist attack in the West that can be traced back to Afghanistan, the West will turn a blind eye to what happens inside Afghanistan.
In any case, after their ignominious exit from Afghanistan, neither the US nor its other allies are going to come back to Afghanistan in a hurry. The over-the-horizon operations being planned are so much hot air. After all, what will they achieve that over a 100,000 US troops on ground couldn’t? At most, the US will pressure Pakistan to ‘do more’. Perhaps, it will even lean on Pakistan to give some base or listening post. This will create a dilemma for Pakistan, but not one that will unduly worry the Pakistanis.
Bases and Benefits
Adept at playing both sides, the Pakistanis could give bases to the Americans but impose some serious constraints on them, in addition to taking top dollar from them, seeking weapons and, perhaps, some political and diplomatic support. In other words, they will try to not repeat the mistake of selling themselves cheap to the Americans.
They will, at the same time, tell the Taliban to not react adversely to such an arrangement with the Americans. The sales pitch to the Taliban will be that just as for 20 years the Pakistanis gave the Americans all sorts of facilities but also helped the Taliban achieve victory, they will again ensure that no serious damage is done to the Taliban regime because of US presence in Pakistan.
All of this sounds great on paper. But Afghanistan has a bad habit of springing nasty surprises that upset the most carefully calculated and calibrated plans. Pakistan, in any case, has a terrible track record of miscalculating. In the 1990s, too, the Pakistanis thought they had everything worked out. Those plans went awry very fast. Will the 2020s be any different? In other words, will getting what it wanted in Afghanistan and what it worked for so hard—bring the Taliban back to power—end up in real tragedy for Pakistan?
This article was first published on ORF.