In response to a journalist’s query last week, Director General of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt General Faiz Hameed, said, “everything will be OK, don’t worry”. The general, who visited Kabul this week, was reflecting on the best-case scenario that Pakistan hopes will prevail in its troubled neighbourhood.
The off-the-cuff remark, given at the spur of the moment, captures the intense diplomatic efforts afoot to use Afghanistan’s new situation to the advantage of peace and, most importantly, for the relief of the Afghans, whose third generation has been born into endless conflict and misery.
Last week Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to Antonio Guterres, United Nations secretary general, besides many world leaders. There is a beeline of international visitors landing in Islamabad to engage in deep discussions about the current affairs in Afghanistan. Admittedly, this intense diplomatic focus is driven more by concern than by hope.
The fall of the Ashraf Ghani government has not led to bloold-letting and most of Afghanistan continues to maintain a tense peace, except for the Panjsher Valley, the last holdout of resistance, the country, collectively, is on the edge.
The Taliban is expected to announce a formal government this week and the world expects them to make it ethnically representative so as to incorporate the country’s different races that have historically had a problem with co-sharing power at the Centre.
The Western governments taking cue from the US policy are preconditioning a softer approach to the Taliban to the texture of their government.
Intense diplomatic parleys
Pakistani officials tell Gulf News that most of the conversations with foreign visitors are about the subject of the Taliban government.
“We are not playing the postman of the world. We were the first ones to consistently speak about the inevitability of sharing of power in Kabul even when Hamid Karzai and later Ashraf Ghani along with their Western backers were forcing us strike hard on the Taliban leadership. That policy is exactly what we are recommending to the Taliban as well. Other countries are only echoing this,” said a member of the Pakistan security establishment who has been to Kabul a few times recently and is privy to Islamabad’s engagement with the new leadership there.
It is anyone’s guess how much of these concerns about the inclusivity of the Taliban set-up will be finally met. The Taliban are, for now, keeping everyone wondering.
Insiders however say that there is slim chance that the world’s expectations and the Taliban’s view of how Afghanistan needs to be governed can be reconciled simply because the two are operating from different standpoints.
The outside world, with the exception of China and Russia, is more focused on the road ahead for Afghanistan that is littered with economic hardship, a looming threat of conflict, resistance, violence, and, worse, dislocation and migration of hundreds of thousands.
A middle ground for all
Without aid, the state of Afghanistan will be in trouble, and that is the bargaining card that Western powers assume they have with the Taliban. Pakistan has no option but to consistently nudge both sides to soften their stances and come to the middle ground to forge an agreement.
Pakistan has consistently warned of the dangers inherent in efforts to economically squeeze Afghanistan and has spoken about voids left in this hard country becoming breeding grounds of a new wave of terrorism.
At the same time Pakistani officials are burning the midnight oil, trying to get the Taliban to become more accommodative and not be dismissive of the Western world’s concerns.
“The only clout that we have is that both the parties listen to us and so far have avoided accusing each other, but that’s about all,” said a Pakistan Foreign Office official on the condition of anonymity.
“Our hope is that both parties are aware of the risk of taking a confrontationist path and are willing to stay engaged, sometimes through us, sometimes directly. These are very positive signs,” he concluded.
But the clock is ticking fast in Kabul. Once the Taliban have announced their government, the outside world will have to decide whether to live with it or reject it. Before that decisive moment arrives, everyone is trying to put their best foot forward in Afghanistan’s uncertain waters. It is a short phase but if used wisely it can turn the country’s fortunes around.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12