Let’s for a moment recollect the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan’s military geography. As we know it is located at the junction point of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Slightly farther north is Russia and off center to the northeast is China. Then to due east are Pakistan and India which are perpetually locked in a military standoff against each other and are now nuclear weapon states too. It also has a southwestern neighbor Iran whose history and rediscovery of the power of their brand of faith has become a powerful mix which is radiating effects beyond its borders. This faith is one of the major Islamic sects which majority in Afghanistan and Pakistan do not follow. For that reason this sectarian divergence has had strategic implications for the three countries in particular and for the larger region in general.
Afghanistan like the Central Asian states is landlocked and dependent heavily on Pakistan and somewhat on Iran for access to the Indian Ocean. For the geo strategic campaigner into Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan is the essential military pivot and must be secured first. This compulsion gave birth to the famous Great Game more than a century ago and continues to captivate emerging world powers interested in this region ever since. China’s well known BRI and CPEC pass hugging its northwestern and eastern borders respectively.
The prevailing environment in Afghanistan is clearly one of politico- economic uncertainty. The Taliban government is facing severe problems just to survive. This uncertainty raises severe doubts in those countries that seek to engage Kabul, particularly the regional states. It therefore forecloses many options and leaves just a few avenues. Bankruptcy, famine, unlettered in nation building and stuttering governance, far too much stress on religion, ignorance of regional and international geopolitics, factions within the Taliban, alarming presence, harboring and absorption of terrorists groups like TTP, ETIM, ISIK, Al Qaida into their rank and file, ignoring security concerns of regional countries and allowing Afghan soil to be used by TTP, BLA/ BLF against Pakistan are the major irritants. These facts and visuals do not form a nice workable mosaic of a country which badly needs international recognition and assistance. Afghanistan’s geo-strategic significance is established, however that is not enough, the state has to merit international help based upon its promising governance and generally acceptable diplomatic trajectories. There is an old saying that you cannot go on wielding a whip and hope to be endeared to your horse.
Kabul is either unaware or plain unworried about external support to the displaced Northern Alliance opposition which are centered in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkey. They are also connected to India and sheltered like former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in UAE. They are very active in social media and readily receive a sympathetic ear in western and US media. Taliban know and must not ignore its impact on global opinion, particularly its capacity to scandalize and demonize. Who would know better than our friends from Iran? Northern Alliance may be needed to be factored in the Kabul calculus according to their body weight. We know that Afghanistan is in transit but there is a feeling of imminent collapse. Its people are choked, hungry, penniless and miserable. Taliban cannot deliver.
If there are avenues, humanitarian is the quickest and the easiest followed by political and diplomatic engagements. Recognition of the Taliban is not a priority at this stage, it is saving the population from famine. To tackle the problem one must seek a regional solution. Russia, Pakistan, Iran and China must play key roles. Taliban respect Moscow more than others as it sees it as the perfect counter balance against US. A country that can challenge the US effectively in this region.
All neighbors of Afghanistan have uncomfortable relations with present day Kabul. Pakistan correctly ensures sanctity of its borders, that the fence must be protected and that no mass immigration to be allowed. Pakistan should stop patronizing Afghanistan which is one thing that the Afghans detest the most other than an imposed ruler or an occupation force. It must deal with Taliban administration on state-to-state basis, not play ‘good boy/elder brother’ and show firmness in dealing with Kabul.
In order to be viewed as a fair minded interlocutor with Afghanistan’s interest in view, Pakistan must reach out to all other Afghan groups that are currently outside Afghanistan as a message to the Taliban that we are equipoised. To expect Taliban to expel the TTP, BLA or other anti-Pakistan fugitives from their soil just because it is our security concern and they are obliged to do so as part of the return of the favors done will be wishful. I am half a Pushtoon myself and remember my elders often recalling the old wisdom that a Kabuli is hardly thankful to anyone not even to himself. Expecting them to show a shade of gratitude is not in their old handbook of dealings with people east of the Hindukush. This leaves us with one preferable option that is if Kabul does not or cannot honor our security concerns, we have to opt for hot pursuit to eliminate terrorist bases inside Afghanistan.
Longevity of the Taliban rule in Kabul is doubtful under these circumstances. Countries cannot base long term relationship with a government that is seen as hostile and out of sync with aspirations of its own people and those of its neighbors. Afghans are seeing terrorist groups gaining control of their country. The other day a European member of Daesh was intercepted at Afghan border on the Central Asian side with large amount of foreign currency. Those who might have slipped through the net may be many more. This shows they find the security environment conducive for their induction.
Hoping to see Taliban taking responsibility of maintaining good relations with neighboring countries is a long shot. TTP/ Al-Qaida/ ISKP may well soon call the shots from Kabul. Are we witnessing the Taliban movement being hijacked by these terrorists? There are visible signs that an impossible situation is developing which needs a sane response. Its spillover cannot be allowed into the regional countries country, not in Pakistan at any rate.
Before I wind up a word about Iran’s renewed interest in Afghanistan. Normally ethnic and sectarian links have a strong pull across borders. This is also a sensitive and tricky matter which requires very careful handling by concerned states. Iran has a territorial contiguity and reasonable following inside Afghanistan from Heart all the way to Panjsher Valley. Iran can do a lot to help Taliban stabilize that country which it must just as despite Afghan unease over the border configuration and their proxy Pushtoon stir Pakistan is exercising strategic restraint, extending a helping hand in their hour of need.