Regime change in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Person second from left is a former bodyguard for Ghani. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi)

Col Sushil Tanwar
The swift takeover of Kabul by the Taliban has created a flutter in the regional geo strategic landscape. While the world is still struggling to address the critical dilemma of providing legitimacy to the new regime, it is Islamabad which is currently in a state of maximum anxiety over the future course of events.
The centrality of Pakistan to the Afghan Cauldron, both as a problem and as a solution, has never been in doubt. It not only deftly exploited its leverage over Taliban leadership especially the ‘Quetta Shura’ , but was also smart enough to portray that it has limited influence over Taliban and therefore can only be a ‘facilitator’ and not a “guarantor” to the Afghan peace process .
Establishment of a favourable regime in Afghanistan in accordance with its theory of “Strategic Depth” has been a long cherished national objective of Pakistan. A friendly, if not pliant, ruling dispensation in Kabul in the form of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is therefore being seen as a victory by Pakistan Establishment.
Tango With Taliban – Will it last?
Despite their denials, it is apparent military campaign by Taliban would not have been successful without active involvement of the Pakistan Army. There were a number of unverified reports about presence of Pakistani personnel, Special Forces and ISI officials during the course of fighting. Treatment of injured cadres and funeral prayers for the dead was also a common phenomenon across the Durand Line.
It is still early to predict the exact nature of the new regime in Kabul. There are doubts over the monolithic nature of Taliban leadership and their ability to replicate the success on the battle field in governing & rebuilding the war torn nation.
However, while the Taliban will continue to closely bank upon Pakistan at least in initial stages of its rule, any attempt by Pakistan to forcibly influence Kabul on core policy decisions will be met with fierce resistance.
Mullah Baradar, who was incarcerated by Pakistan in 2010 for independently reaching out for peace talks with then President Hamid Karzai, and then released in 2018 for peace talks with Trump administration, has emerged as one of the prominent faces for leading the next government. Only time will tell if he and other Taliban commanders have been able to completely forget the ignominy suffered at the hands of ‘Deep State’ in Pakistan.
Battered Past, Uncertain future
The relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been marked by mutual distrust and acrimony. Disputed nature of Durand Line, mutual interference rooted in Pakhtun nationalism & allegations of cross border terrorism has resulted in an environment wherein peaceful coexistence of these two neighbours has been reduced to a mirage.
Pakistan claims that it benefits the most from “a stable and peaceful” Afghanistan. It is already a reluctant host to more than 2.7 mn Afghan refugees and any further deterioration of situation in Afghanistan will only add to the influx of refugees with enormous socio -economic and security costs for Pakistan. The construction of the fence along the approximately 2670 km long border & strict control measures on border crossings by Pakistan are designed to alleviate these fears.
Safe sanctuaries of terror groups in Afghanistan, some allegedly funded by arch enemy India, has been one of the main grievances of Pakistan. Despite public assurances by Taliban about “Afghan territory not being allowed to be used against any country ” , the enduring ideological linkages between Taliban and other fundamentalist groups such as TTP( as reflected in the congratulatory message on Taliban victory sent by TTP emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud) may prevent any significant actions by the new Afghan government against these outfits. This was evident in the in- camera briefing held in the month of July this year for the Parliament members by Pakistan Army in the presence of COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hamid where in Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban (TTP) were depicted as ” two sides of the same coin” . Since then , many TTP fighters including some key commanders such as Deputy Chief Faqir Muhammed have been freed in various prison breaks like in Bagram and Pul – e-Charkhi during the Taliban offensive. A resurgent TTP along with other insurgent groups will pose a formidable challenge to security forces in Pakistan.
While Pakistan may draw some consolation from the loss of Indian influence in Afghanistan, it will be cognizant that the ‘Triumph of Taliban” will add further impetus to the ever growing religious fundamentalism in Pakistan and embolden the ‘Jihadis’ thus further aggravating the already fragile security environment.
Towards Geo Economics – An Ardous Journey
Over last few months, Pakistan has declared what it calls a paradigm policy shift from ‘Geo politics to Geo-economics ‘ wherein it is projecting itself as a potential hub for commerce and connectivity particularly for Central Asia and West Asia. The installation of a favourable regime in the form of Taliban along with the unhindered support by China for execution & expansion of CPEC will encourage Pakistan in its desperate efforts towards economic revival.
The economic prospects have however been dampened by the fact that Pakistan by itself lacks the capacity to undertake any meaningful investment and is wholly dependent on international partners especially China. While China acknowledges that Afghanistan can play a significant role in its ambitious BRI initiative and much needed integration with CPEC, it does not currently see enough incentives to invest heavily in the region till the sensitive issues of political legitimacy and favourable security climate are not fully addressed. Similar concerns will also adversely affect a deeper economic involvement of other stake holders like Russia and Iran.
The Great Game – Crafting an International Image
There are some concerns that Pakistan may now use this opportunity to give an impetus to terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. It is likely that some of the military hardware captured by Taliban might be handed over to the terrorist organisations like JeM and LeT. However, the current geo political environment, FATF sword of Damocles and robust posture of Indian Army along the Line of Control will make it extremely difficult for Pakistan to successfully undertake this adventure.
In addition, public expressions of admiration for Taliban by a wide cross section of Pakistan society including government functionaries & retired generals , has only strengthened the suspicions of the international community and will certainly harm Pakistan’s attempts to cultivate a favourable image.
Since its relationship with USA after a disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to turn negative, Pakistan is currently trying to collaborate with other stake holders particularly China and Russia so that it can facilitate the process of international recognition to the Taliban regime.
The key challenge for Islamabad though is to establish a semblance of good will amongst the people of Afghanistan. Although it has taken certain measures in recent times such as broader engagement with sections of Afghan society & relaxation of visa regime, Pakistan may ultimately find it difficult to win over the majority of Afghan population who view Pakistan with deep suspicion and blame it for much of its human tragedies.
(This is an abridged version of article published by Centre for air power studies)