Secretary of State Blinken’s dinner reception to Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, when the latter was in the US for attending the session of the UN General Assembly, has been interpreted by political circles as the US’ attempt to straighten the soured relations between the US and Pakistan. The former Pakistani Prime Minister had made bitter criticism of the US during the last days of his tenure in office. At that time US-Pak relations were at the nadir and both countries wanted to see that relations were restored to normal.
The young Pakistani foreign minister has been urging not only Washington but the international community also to comprehensively engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan gives the impression that the US considers its Afghan policy through the prism of US-Pakistan relations. What Pakistan wants the US to do with Afghanistan is not clear and no amount of persuasion can produce concrete results unless the ultimate purpose of Pakistan is made clear and transparent.
There was a time when Pakistan and the Taliban movement were co-related and Pakistan went to any length to support the Taliban in sending the US and NATO troops out of their soil. But soon after the Taliban regained power in August 2021, its relations with Pakistan began to sour. The first reason for the decline in the relationship was the hegemonic style of Pakistan in handling the Taliban. The second and more disappointing irritant is the Durand Line which the Taliban declined to accept whereas Pakistan considers it essential for normal relations with the Taliban.
The stand of the Shahbaz Sharif government in Islamabad is that isolating the Taliban from the international community would only lead to further deterioration of the human rights scenario in Afghanistan particularly the rights of women to freedom and education. The matter of engaging the Taliban was crucial to the adherence to human rights of women in Afghanistan, argued Shahbaz Sharif while addressing the General Assembly in New York.
Although more than a year has passed since the Taliban seized power in Kabul yet Pakistan has not formally recognized the Taliban regime. This stands in direct contrast to how Pakistan behaved when the Taliban grabbed power in 2001 for the first time. At that time Pakistan was the first of the three countries that recognized the Taliban regime.
The situation on the Pak-Afghan border is nowhere near normalcy as was expected. The reason is mainly that the Taliban openly fraternize with the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pukhtuns on either side of the line do not recognize the Durand Line because it divides hundreds of Pukhtun families along the line.
There is low-and mid-level US engagement with the Taliban. Two fundamental reasons are stated why the United States — and most of the international community — do not fully engage the Taliban. One is the continued violations of women’s rights, including barring girls from attending secondary schools. Perhaps this is a major point of contention. The second and openly stated irritant is the Taliban’s continued harbouring of non-state terrorists. The killing of Al Qaeda chief Al Zawahiri in a targeted missile attack by the US drones in Kabul is irrefutable proof of the Taliban hobnobbing with Al Qaeda. Taliban have denied any knowledge of Zawahiri’s physical presence in Kabul. But there are no takers of the story, much less the Americans who have been keeping a track of foreign terrorists in the region..
The US argues that this is a violation of a critical element of the US–Taliban’s Doha Agreement that had enabled the United States to end its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan. Therefore, unless Washington is satisfied that the Taliban are not harbouring terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), it may neither engage with the Taliban nor recognize their regime. Washington’s real fight is against Al Qaeda. The ISKP is a particularly aggressive and effective Afghanistan-based terrorist organization and has already managed to attract defectors from the Taliban and the TTP.
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) are of particular concern for Islamabad given their frequent cross-border terrorist incursions into Pakistan. The State Department has already placed the TTP on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations as it has deep links with the Taliban, which was instrumental in its formation in 2007. In such a situation, there seems only a frail possibility of the US agreeing to engage the Taliban comprehensively as desired by Islamabad.
Pakistan thinks that in case the US engages with the Taliban, the pressure of TTP on her security structure will be substantially reduced. But keeping the ground situation in mind, this possibility seems very remote.
Knowledgeable sources put the strength of the TTP between 4,000 and 6,500 fighters. The number of terror attacks in Pakistan originating from Afghanistan has increased ever since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. In June 2022 the Taliban steered the negotiations between the Pakistan government and the TTP leadership. A temporary ceasefire was agreed but it did not last beyond September. The reason is that the TTP is not prepared to accept the Durand Line in any case because it threatens the very survival of the Pukhtun of the erstwhile NWFP.
The Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), pitted against the Pakistan army, too, has organizational links with the TTP. Pakistan is wary of BLA not only for its separatist agenda but more importantly its programme of targeting the Chinese citizens and the Chinese-built infrastructure in the western province of Baluchistan. After China issued serious warnings to Pakistan to effectively protect the Chinese personnel and structure against which several attacks had happened in the western part of Baluchistan, Pakistan deployed thousands of her military personnel with instructions to protect the Chinese citizens working on the massive US $ 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects.
The BLA has also been designated by the State Department. As such, Washington has yet one more impediment in the path of engaging the Taliban comprehensively. The Taliban has turned down the demand of Pakistan to shut down the TTP and BLA on their soil. After all these groups have had close relations in the past and have been very faithful partners in the Taliban struggle against the American and NATO forces. There is no chance of the Taliban banishing them for the sake of winning Pakistan’s goodwill which, however, matters very little.
Yet one more reason for the Taliban not to hunt down the TTP or BLA is that if the Kabul regime comes down with a heavy hand on these once-allied forces it is likely that many of their activists would opt to join the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a terrorist organization much dreaded by the Taliban.
In the final analysis, Afghanistan will be pre-eminent in the Central or South Asian strategies. It cannot be sidelined when US-Pakistan relations are discussed. The US cannot impose an ideology on the fiercely independent Afghans. Pakistan’s concept of strategic depth westward has proved as fallacious as her fears of her eastern neighbour. The dramatics of the rise and fall of Imran Khan has at least resulted in one positive way and that is the aura which the Pakistan army had built of its importance and role for seven decades of independence has been shredded into pieces. For the first time, the Pakistan army realized that real power rests not with the GHQ but with the people of the land. The Pentagon, too, should understand that reality and frame the state policy accordingly. Washington and Islamabad differ ideologically and morally in their policy towards the Taliban. Therefore, as long as the terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the question of the US engaging the Taliban does not arise. That seems be the clear message from the US to Islamabad.