Asian or Afghan Solution?

Asian or Afghan Solution?
More than any other country in our region, Pakistan is deeply worried about the Taliban’s swift advances in Afghanistan after the “withdrawal” of American and NATO troops ahead of the September deadline. The Miltablishment has separately briefed the leaders of the government, opposition and media about the difficult situation and hard decisions in store, and sought a “responsible” reaction from them – which means not taking sides in the conflict between the various stakeholders, in particular not glamourizing the Afghan Taliban by playing to the anti-American gallery in the country, nor reporting on any resurgence of Taliban terrorism in Balochistan or erstwhile FATA.

Islamabad’s stated position is that a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul is a necessary condition for peace in the country and stability in the region. A full-fledged Taliban takeover, it is argued, will prolong and deepen the civil war by provoking neighbours and the international community to react in an aggressive manner by stoking their respective proxies, bringing Afghanistan back full circle to 2001. Pakistan, in particular, is forecast to bear the brunt of the blowback from such a situation as happened earlier, both in terms of having to cope with a mass influx of refugees as well as a resurgence of violent Taliban terrorism in our borderland provinces. The Miltablishment has belatedly acknowledged that there are no good (Afghan) vs bad (Pakistan) Taliban and a Taliban seizure of power in Kabul is likely to entrench and embolden the Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists in safe havens in Afghanistan to launch ever more fierce attacks in Pakistan.

The future American role in Afghanistan is of special concern to Pakistan. Islamabad was not in favour of an exit of American troops from Afghanistan before a power-sharing peace plan had been executed because it feared exactly the sort of scramble for power amidst heightened conflict that is now taking place. For much the same sort of fears, it is now opposed to a proposed “across-the horizon” American “repositioning” of power in Afghanistan that would likely rely on Pakistani air space to attack Taliban positions in Afghanistan in support of the Ghani regime. Such American intervention with Pakistani “facilitation” would draw the ire of the Taliban and diminish whatever little sympathy or leverage Islamabad currently has with them, making it impossible to have good relations in the event of the establishment of a Taliban Emirate in the future. This would explain why Islamabad has launched a “pre-emptive” strike against the notion of an American airbase on Pakistani soil, even though the Americans have not formally asked for it. Indeed, Imran Khan’s “absolutely not” remark was aimed at playing to the anti-American gallery at home no less than holding out reassurances to the Taliban. The problem for the Miltablishment, however, is that without scratching the backs of the Americans, Islamabad cannot hope to get significant relief from the IMF and related international financial institutions or FATF which have a stranglehold over the Pakistani economy. Thus another piece of Miltablishment advice to the opposition and media is not to stir controversy over secret US-Pak negotiations on such thorny issues.

Meanwhile, references to a revival of The Great Game in Afghanistan have started to provoke the imagination of political scientists. For various reasons, the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Turk and Central Asian “istans” have become very active in the scramble for influence and power in Afghanistan. The Chinese want to link a CPEC road/rail corridor through Afghanistan to Central Asia and later on to the Eurasia Economic Union as part of its Road and Belt strategy. They already have stakes in building a Kashgar-Faizabad fibre-optic cable network, which they hope to later expand toward a China-Kyrgzstan-Afghanistan Silk Road System. They also want to ensure that any future Afghan regime does not stir pro-Uighur sentiment against China. The Russians and Central Asian “istans” don’t want Kabul to host Islamic militants from ISIS-Khorasan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Iran is concerned too – there are about 800,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iranian border villages and over 2 million illegals. The Taliban now control most of Herat province and pro-Iran Shiite warlord Ismail Khan has deployed large militia forces to guard his key cities and airports. Turkey has already stationed troops to guard Kabul Airport. Pakistan is also looking to bridge the narrow Pamir Knot in Gorno-Badakshan that divides it from Tajikistan and link an electricity grid with it.

The Taliban are scrambling for talks with Iran, in Doha with the Americans and the Ghani regime, in Islamabad with Pakistan and in Dushanbe with the stakeholders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — the Russians, Chinese, Indians, etc. Of course, Pakistan is a central participant in all these dialogues where it continues to insist on an intra Afghan dialogue to conclude a power-sharing formula that ensures an end to the civil war and brings peace and stability to the region. The main thrust of the Taliban, however, is to try and persuade these powers that an exclusive Taliban regime controlling all of Afghanistan will not be inimical to their respective interests. But a serious trust deficit between the Taliban and the various stakeholders has precluded any breakthrough so far. The specter of terrorism, extremism and separatism continues to haunt the region.

The notion of an “Afghan solution” originally proposed by Pakistan and the US is being quickly overtaken in the SCO by the idea of an “Asian Solution” that provides a road map for political stability to promote economic development via huge infrastructural projects in the region. China is the moving force behind this. This week’s SCO moot is going to be an important springboard for such a trilateral mechanism. With the prime ministers of Pakistan and India both attending, and many top officials of the other participating countries, including foreign ministers and heads of Intel agencies, hopes are high that some headway can be made to stop the slide into a fierce civil war that compels the US to wade into Afghanistan all over again on the shoulders of Pakistan.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.