Pakistan in Afghanistan: a Spoiler or Game Changer?

Harshita Singh
12th December 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

Pakistan’s vested interest in Afghanistan date back to the 20th century and with time that has attained a more overt form. Taliban’s coming to power marked a nadir in the international domain, but for Pakistan, it was a moment for reaping the benefits of a whirlwind it had conspicuously abetted over two decades. Owing to its geopolitical location, it continues to remain in the midst of crucial developments in the region. This article attempts to piece together its role and intentions in the arena wherein it is so deeply involved.

Can Pakistan play the role of a partner in the region?

Innumerable set of dialogues focusing upon the dilemma of Afghan situation have taken place before the installation of Taliban in power and continue to take place. Pakistan has concomitantly claimed to be playing the role of an arbiter with the intention of bringing peace and stability. In contrast to the goodwill that Pakistan affiliates itself with, a recent US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, accused Pakistan of playing a disruptive and destabilising role in Afghanistan.

Pakistan should focus on bilateral developments with Afghanistan, instead of making reprehensible statements about India’s involvement in the Afghan issue. In a move aimed at bringing together the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of regional partners with stakes in Afghanistan, India sent invite to Pakistan as well but was met with repudiation. It instead organised an extended Troika meeting with special envoys from the United States, Russia and China wherein a meeting was also held with Afghan acting foreign minister on the sidelines. The Pakistan establishment has been involved in shunning India’s imperative role on Afghanistan and this does not translate well for its attempt to play an active role in the region. The scope for bringing an actual headway in Afghanistan improves if Pakistan does not let bilateral points of contention with India come in the way.

The question of internationally recognising Taliban, which stands to affect the leverage foreign powers exercise, looms large with Pakistan making cryptic attempts to ensure the same. In a recent meeting with a US congress delegation, it brought up the subject of ‘liquidity issue’ and ‘banking channels’ that have inundated Afghanistan due to the freeze on assets and bank reserves. Pakistan has suggested that the question of international recognition can be addressed only by the international community as it’s a collective decision but its tacit attempts at easing the ground for Taliban suggest otherwise. Taliban appointed diplomats have taken charge of the Afghan missions and consulates in Pakistan and have been granted visas with Pakistan’s Ambassador in Kabul stating it “does not mean recognition but facilitation”. It can be rightfully asserted that the neighbouring country has emerged as a steadfast partner for the Taliban, while it continues to influence the actions of other regional powers.

Will Pakistan be able to bring about any concrete development on ground?

While keeping alive the hope for Pakistan to actually bring out a meaningful impact on ground, it becomes imperative to make sense of its current actions. Its actions are built on a plinth that prioritizes Taliban’s interest over the Afghan population; PM Imran Khan’s faith in the group precedes him. In a CNN interview where he claimed, “Afghan women are strong. Give them time, they will get their rights,” and “You cannot impose women’s rights from abroad” was evident of his persistent faith in the Taliban which disregards the interests of its own citizens.

India while continuing its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, had last month offered 50,000 metric tonnes wheat, which was only recently approved for shipment through Pakistan by the country after a long stint of silence on the proposal. Pakistan should avoid bringing in the bilateral quandaries with India, if it wants to fast track deliverance of aid on ground. Even internally, trade associations have complained against the barriers thronging economic connectivity. Zubair Motiwala, Chairman of the Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PAJCCI) said, “Due to the closure of the Chaman border for more than a month, we are facing a loss of Rs.100 million every day. This is the time to trade with Afghanistan by keeping borders open especially for trade, people movement and humanitarian assistance”. As long as Pakistan continues to exercise a restraint in heeding to the demands of these enterprises it won’t set the wheels of change in motion. Pakistan has lamented about rising foreign debt and low tax revenue becoming an issue of national security. Without bringing in long-term efforts to reform the existing structure, no change can be facilitated. It needs to better manage its internal security complexities with the quest for economic resources as these factors are deeply intertwined with its actions on Afghan soil.

How will Pakistan’s domestic politics impact Afghanistan?

On account of Taliban’s installation to power, several religio-political parties and organisations like Jamiat Ulema-e-Isam-F, Wifaq-ul-Madaris came forth to celebrate the victory and congratulate the leadership. Whereas the Awami National Party took a more balanced approach expressing their faith in dialogue and peace as the way forward. PM Imran Khan’s suggesting that, ‘Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery might have played a hand in fueling the rhetoric in support of the transition further. While PML-N Vice-President Maryam Nawaz advocated a more reserved approach: “Pakistan should accept the decision of the Afghan people and stay away from the country’s internal affairs.”

It was evidently visible how the domestic affairs of Pakistan have gotten enmeshed with the Taliban administration which, as stated by Government spokesman Fawad Chaudhry, helped facilitate the month-long ceasefire between the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The notorious terrorist group, in the past has been noted as two sides of the same coin in reference to the Afghan Taliban by the military command of Pakistan. The group is responsible for loss of thousands of lives and is driven by the agenda of overthrowing the government for a more hardline interpretation of Sharia, thus posing an existential threat to the state. This interlaced negotiation between a state and US designated terror group doesn’t bode well for the credibility of Pakistan and only highlights the perverse nature of the state. In Pakistan’s case, domestic and external affairs cannot exist in isolation and they will continue to affect each other.


*The  Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies  

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author