It’s the end of a bloody year in more ways than one, with the human race forced to change itself from being a social animal to a house-bound one, and depression and anxiety the norm rather than the exception.
Think yourself lucky. In Afghanistan, no one has the time for the coronavirus. They’re more engaged in trying to survive the Taliban. For the so-called ‘international community,' which in this case, translates into the United States and its allies, it was a year of shame, for having abandoned an entire people to a fully known and comprehended danger.
As Afghanistan slides into an abyss of misery and danger through no fault of its own, it is vital that some constants about the most recent phase of war are recognised, so that policy in major capitals is less revoltingly gauche and predictable.
It is time to call a spade and spade, and then get on with the job of providing desperately needed help to the Afghans.
The Taliban Whitewashed
First, everyone with a grain of sense knew that the Taliban had 'won', once President Trump signed the Agreement with the Taliban in early 2020. Once the US had set a date for withdrawal, President Ghani’s days were numbered, even if he had been a model of good governance ( which he was not) or how much talk there was about an 'intra-afghan' dialogue.
As Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated in Pakistan, the self-deception was complete, with teams of experts even inserted to instruct the Afghans how to go about the entire process of power-sharing, based on a whole academic field of 'ending/ managing/ post-conflict' analysis behind it.
If there ever was a plan entirely unrooted in reality, this was it. The lesson?
Listen to your intelligence and not just the 'experts’' who produced 'on demand' analysis that said that the Taliban were not as bad as they seemed (they were worse), that they were after all 'Afghans' (born and brought up in Pakistan), and that Pakistan would be a valuable partner because it did not really want the Taliban in power, and that it did not entirely control the Taliban.
The last two should have been forever demolished by the image of DG ISI Faiz Hameed sipping his tea in Kabul, while his Prime Minister whooped it up by declaring that Afghanistan had 'broken the shackles of slavery'. So Pakistan duped the international community and all its 'special envoys' completely. That much should have been clear as a factor for the future too. Sadly it's not.
Western Cultural Norms and Failure of Assessments
The truth is that Islamabad continues to blindside the west. The BBC, for instance, opines "Pakistan's historic support for the Taliban does not, however, mean it is entirely relaxed about the group's takeover in Kabul," (this in the context of attacks by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP and possibility of a massive refugee crisis).
Undoubtedly TTP attacks have gone up, but the reality is that as long these remain restricted to the borderlands, it doesn’t bother Islamabad much. However, that's precisely why Pakistan backs the Taliban. To control its borders, it needs a reasonably 'friendly' government in Kabul, a difficult task given the hatred that Pakistan inspires among ordinary Afghans.
That this resentment is also within Taliban ranks was evident most recently as the Durand Line once again saw firing, when Pakistan was fencing the 'border', unrecognised by successive Kabul governments. Meanwhile, Pakistan has learnt its lessons on refugees. This time around, new arrivals are being deported within days.
In addition to this, it has barred faith groups from providing support to the refugees, even as smuggling rings ensure that most just transit through Pakistan towards Turkey and Europe.
In other words, this time it's not Pakistan's problem; it's going to be everyone else's. So here’s the bitter lesson. Pakistan’s 50-year-old effort to dominate Afghanistan is not going to be set aside because of a few attacks by the TTP. Nor is it likely to be overly concerned about refugees, though it talks interminably about the 3 mn refugees from successive waves of war (that it fuelled).
Western cultural norms, while accepting the turning away of refugees, are however incapable of imagining a situation where one's own citizens are attacked due to a specific foreign policy. Such a government would be shot down at polls, and innumerable questions would be asked. Not so in Pakistan, where decision-making is through the lens of the military.
It's that cultural blindness and expectation of how Pakistan counts the costs that are central to failure in assessments. Don’t try to outthink the Pakistanis — they’re on an entirely different track.
The Compulsions of Afghanistan
And now to apply all this to the future. At present, every country is trying to 'get a handle' on the Taliban without actually recognising them. That means not just that major countries are meeting 'de facto' Taliban officials, but also that they are making tracks for Rawalpindi.
Arising from this are situations rich in irony, such as that of the German envoy thanking Pakistan for its help. Nearly everyone including Foreign Ministers at the recently held OIC conference is calling for 'inclusivity', respect for 'norms', women's rights, and such. Translated from diplospeak, that means everyone would like the Taliban 'government' to have lesser terrorists and more 'moderate' faces.
The truth is that the Taliban have since long included Tajiks, Pashtuns, and even some nominal Shias. But this is now about who gets the larger cake, with the Pakistanis ensuring that their protégés, like the Haqqani network, get the most important ministries.
If anyone thinks Islamabad is going to lose its hardly won grip on Kabul, just because a few foreign governments ask it, is naivety in the extreme. Moreover, Islamabad feels it still has so much to sell.
US forces still need Pakistani air space for operations, even as images of US military personnel in Islamabad seemed to give the lie to Imran Khan’s complete refusal of US presence and bases. In other words, it seems the past is still working into the future, with Islamabad again central to the Afghan solution, even as it stirs up the pond.
Cutting Out The Past from the Future
So the main lesson from the past is simply this. If the 'international community' wants to get aid in, it has to ensure that Pakistan is completely sidelined or defanged in terms of a solution. For instance, it has to ensure that aid via Kabul or through Pakistan, doesn’t become a Pakistan-propelled power play.
That will inevitably mean strengthening Pakistan’s hand, to the detriment of everything else. Instead, set aside geopolitics and international name-calling to insist that all bordering countries of Afghanistan, including Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, be asked to route aid through their border networks – which exist whether the US likes it or not – and then tasked, and held accountable with ensuring the safety of aid agencies in their respective 'spheres' of influence at district-level.
If a second priority is to get the Taliban to cooperate in reining in terror, then recognise some realities. The Taliban are certainly a revanchist and violent group, with a strong element of organised crime.
But at the moment, its 'government' is more interested in at least paying its own cadres, and some consolidation, rather than interfering in affairs outside its borders. In short, the Taliban would like nothing better than getting a grip on its own territory. But that’s not what Islamabad wants.
A secure Taliban that has a solid hold on its own armed forces among other things would be against everything that Pakistan has worked for. So it's not a bit of use eulogising the Pakistanis for their 'assistance'. What is needed is a solid league of extraordinary men or women, who will together arm-twist the Pakistanis to stabilise Pakistan. And since wonders may never cease, Islamabad may find that helping Afghans gets it more brownie points than exterminating them.