Pakistan Pitches the Taliban Regime to the World
Islamabad argues that failure to engage with Afghanistan’s new government will doom its citizens.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Pakistan pitches the Taliban government in Afghanistan to the world, Indian farmers stage protests on the anniversary of controversial agricultural laws, and Nepal announces an investigation of Chinese border actions.
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Pakistan Goes to Bat for the Taliban
Pakistan has launched a global campaign to garner support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan, with senior officials making the pitch for engagement in speeches, op-eds, and interviews, as well as through diplomacy with Western governments. Islamabad has called for immediate development assistance to the country and for sanctions on the regime to be removed.
The gist of Pakistan’s message is that failure to engage with the Taliban will doom Afghanistan to humanitarian disaster and other destabilizing outcomes. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last weekend, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “There is only one way to go. We must strengthen and stabilize the current government, for the sake of the people of Afghanistan.” He struck a similar note in a Washington Post op-ed this week.
No other government has made such a direct and sustained pitch for engagement with the Taliban. This isn’t a surprise: Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban when they held power in the 1990s and the last country to end that recognition. It sheltered the Taliban’s top leadership for much of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. As I wrote for Foreign Policy earlier this month, Pakistan is recalibrating its support for the Taliban as the group again transitions from an insurgency to a government.
On one level, Islamabad’s argument for recognizing the Taliban makes sense. As Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan has good reason to worry about the potential spillover effects if the government collapses—refugees, drug trafficking, cross-border terrorism. Afghanistan’s need for humanitarian assistance is critical. This week, CNN reported that food prices have risen by 30 percent and fuel prices by 40 percent.
But Islamabad’s argument is still a tough sell, in part because of the messenger itself. Pakistan doesn’t engender a lot of trust when it comes to Afghanistan policy because of its long-standing support for the Taliban, including the Haqqani network faction, which is implicated in some of the deadliest attacks in the country. It is this very history of support that belies Pakistan’s contention that it doesn’t deserve blame for the Taliban takeover.
Pakistan is emphasizing its positive contributions in Afghanistan, including its help in delivering relief supplies and evacuating foreign nationals. That might not convince foreign governments, which may cynically view Pakistan’s promotion of the Taliban regime as a ploy to get much-needed cash for its friends.
Additionally, Islamabad’s main assertion—that the Taliban are more likely to moderate their policies if they are assured of continuous assistance—is questionable. The Taliban haven’t indicated that their fundamental ideology has changed, even after getting what they have long wanted: legitimacy from Washington after a 2020 deal, and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. The hard-line interim government is just the latest example of the Taliban’s defiance. The more the group is given, the more it seemingly doubles down.
Although many governments are willing to partner with brutal regimes, the Taliban are particularly reprehensible. No other government—not even Saudi Arabia’s—bans older girls from attending school, as the Taliban have since they seized power. The Taliban regime still harbors close ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Many governments may conclude the best strategy is to deliver humanitarian aid through other channels, such as the U.N., without providing it directly to the Taliban.
The Taliban seek international legitimacy. The group doesn’t want to become a global pariah, as its regime was in the 1990s. But Pakistani efforts to help forestall that outcome face many obstacles. No Western country has indicated any intention of recognizing the Taliban regime. Even some regional actors expected to play a major role post-withdrawal—Iran, Russia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Qatar—have expressed concerns about the Taliban’s lack of respect for rights and inclusivity.
This suggests that for the foreseeable future, any global engagement with the Taliban will likely be limited. Khan’s calls for the world to “strengthen and stabilize” the new government in Kabul may well go ignored.
The Week Ahead
October 6-8: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visits India and Pakistan.
What We’re Following
Farmers protest across India. Thousands of farmers took to the streets across India this week to protest the anniversary of the formal passage of controversial agricultural laws. The laws deregulate agricultural markets and facilitate private buyers’ ability to purchase directly from farmers. New Delhi argues the change will liberalize agricultural markets and strengthen the economy, but farmers fear exploitation by corporate interests outside government markets.
The farmers’ protests began late last year—mostly in New Delhi and other northern areas—and have been largely peaceful, although a mass rally in the heart of the capital on Jan. 26 turned violent. This week, smaller demonstrations also took place in the eastern state of Bihar and the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka. The wider geographic reach may reflect the hits to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity over his poor handling of the COVID-19 surge in the spring.
Taliban restore old Afghan Constitution. The Taliban announced this week they will temporarily enact elements of Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution until they finalize a new one next year. The Taliban reject the country’s current constitution, established in 2004, because they say it is too influenced by Western ideas and the U.S. military presence.
But it’s also curious for the Taliban to embrace the 1964 constitution, which calls for religious freedom and women’s rights. The decision likely represents another example of the regime’s attempt to project itself as more moderate version of the previous Taliban government. The group has already showed its hand by noting it will discard any part of the old constitution that violates Islamic law, which the Taliban interpret strictly.
Congressional hearings on Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and head of U.S. Central Command Kenneth McKenzie appeared before the House Armed Services Committee this week to testify on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Like Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month, they faced hours of public grilling.
One of the most notable disclosures came from Milley’s written testimony, which said that a decision for U.S. forces to stay on beyond the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline would have been “military feasible” but would have come at an “extraordinarily high” cost.
It was heartening to see elected officials questioning top civilian and military officials about what went wrong in Afghanistan. But such hearings, relatively rare over the last 20 years, also serve as a reminder of the infrequency of policy debate in Washington over the course of what has been described as a forgotten war.
Under the Radar
Earlier this month, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced the formation of a committee to investigate allegations that China built 11 houses on Nepalese territory. The allegations were first reported in the Indian press in June 2020. Nepal’s previous government, led by K.P. Sharma Oli, conducted its own investigation last year and concluded that China had not encroached on Nepal’s territory. Deuba’s party, then in the opposition, expressed skepticism about the findings.
This story may well have a partisan bent. Oli was close to China, and Kathmandu’s relations with Beijing improved during his term as prime minister. Meanwhile, observers view Deuba as pro-India. As noted by Nepalese scholar Santosh Sharma Poudel in the Diplomat, Deuba’s Nepali Congress party is unhappy with China because of its support for the Nepal Communist Party, which Oli previously led.
Quote of the Week
“It wasn’t lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months. There’s a cumulative effect to a series of strategic decisions that go way back.”
—Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the war in Afghanistan
Former senior Pakistani diplomat Maleeha Lodhi lambastes the Pakistani government’s general pattern of public messaging in Dawn. She writes that there is a “recurring tendency to cry conspiracy and resort to a victim narrative” that “does nothing for national self-confidence and instead corrodes self-esteem.”
Writing for South Asian Voices, Russia scholar Najam Abbas predicts that Moscow will expand its military, diplomatic, and economic presence in Central Asia to try to promote stability in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. “Moscow’s main geopolitical interest is to avoid regional destabilization” he writes.
Women’s rights activist Shreen Abdul Saroor, writing for the Daily Mirror, calls for reforms to Sri Lanka’s Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, a law that “promotes and protects polygamy without any checks.” She writes, “[W]e are continuously told, each time, that it is not the right time. Then tell us, when is the right time?”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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