Albeit, challenging in the early time frame, the Taliban are in a rush to set their foot in Kabul. The Afghan Army is melting away in front of our eyes. Just like in 1996, districts upon districts are being blown away. The US has silently decided to leave the Afghan military to deal with the Taliban alone. No air cover will be provided. Taliban rule will be through coercion and fear like before. Surprisingly, the rural population in the Pashtun belt, due to various reasons, facilitates their rapid advance. Drug proceeds will primarily fund their government along with income from trade and duties. No neighboring country, including Pakistan, wants an exclusive “T rule.”
The Taliban neither care about public opinion nor the bad press. They want restoration of their old position prior to 9/11. Even though China, Russia, India, Iran, and Pakistan are against the extremist rule in Afghanistan, they will accept the Taliban rule. Northern Alliance is well dug in to take them on. Ghani’s longevity is seriously threatened. He must be visualizing a picture similar to the end of Najibullah and Ahmed Shah Masoud two and a half decades ago. In addition, Ghani must be aware of the fact that India deserted both Najibullah and Masoud when it mattered, and India will make no exception for him either. The exodus of Afghans has already started from the cities in fear of a Taliban comeback.
A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will not be hostile towards Islamabad. Pakistani officials must see it as a transitioning period instead of a permanent setting. Pakistan is expected to experience a fresh wave of terrorism, especially in Baluchistan and KPK, until and unless US and NATO forces do not withdraw their forces and Kabul does not fall. As the Taliban gain control of greater swathes of territory along Pakistan’s border belt, the areas of Pakistani TTP and Baluchi non-state actors have become severely restricted. This means that before the full US withdrawal, RAW and Afghan NDS are constrained to expand them.
Kabul fears that these assets will be captured or eliminated by the Taliban or by Pakistan-sponsored operations. Hence, the period up to September 2021 is critical for Islamabad. In their drive to Kabul and other provincial centers, the Taliban have not faced serious armed opposition by Kabul troops yet. Districts and posts will continue to fall, Taliban ranks will swell with fresh recruits, all eager to show their prowess and get their share in ‘Maal – Ghanimat’ (War Booty).
Islamabad should be prepared to witness an increase in anti-Pakistan media campaigns from Kabul, requiring immediate action. Islamabad, Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing must insist on peaceful settlement and avoidance of a civil war by offering mediation to all sides.
It is evident from the recent Taliban field successes that it will become harder to deal with them. Therefore, Pakistan’s stance towards the Taliban must remain firm and clear. The Taliban government must not be recognized at any cost. Islamabad must retain leverage to ensure that all RAW-sponsored anti-Pakistan TTP and Baluchi terrorists operating from Afghan soil be arrested, handed over, or eliminated. As a consequence, most Afghan border posts facing Pakistan are likely to be vacated and possibly occupied by the Taliban eventually. Pakistan must remain steady in dealing with the Taliban; this should remain the schwerpunkt of our future relationship with them.
Trade and commerce must continue, and our border crossing sites must not remain closed. We cannot afford to be responsible for a famine in Afghanistan. Refugees will continue to move into Pakistan, and we may not be too rigid in blocking all. Pakistan must seriously consider granting Pakistani Nationality to Afghanis who have spent over thirty to forty years in our country and economically productive. After scrutiny and intelligence clearance, these long-suffering Afghan refugees must now be absorbed.
As long as he stays in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani must continue to be dealt with as the official Government and so too his Ambassador at Islamabad. There will be retaliatory vibes and possible attacks against our Embassy and Consulates in Afghanistan. It would be prudent to reduce their strength temporarily. Any demand by the Taliban to officially open offices on Pakistan soil may be refused. The system of unofficial engagement or interaction with the Taliban, though untidy, must be retained till the environment becomes clearer.
Pakistan has a responsibility to ensure the security of its territory, people, and economic lifelines like the CPEC. Afghanistan has a major part to play in all three. As long as space for non-state actors does not exist on Afghan soil, Pakistan will pass through these uncertain times. We have the will and the constant security in place; vigilance cannot be compromised.