The response by most states toward weaker ones openly meddling in their internal affairs with negative intent and partaking in attempts to destabilize them via sponsorship of extremist and subnationalist armed groups would be likely be harsh on the diplomatic and quite possibly also military front. The Kabul regime lacks real on-the-ground legitimacy, is riddled with corruption and tainted by other scandals of a darker nature. It also, while taking stunning losses on the battlefield against the Afghan Taliban openly expresses its support to blatantly subversive Pashtun nationalist elements in Pakistan.
Yet, Prime Minister Imran Khan recently stated that he declined a personal meeting with the Taliban to avoid displeasing the Kabul regime, as the Taliban typically refuse to be present at the same talks as Kabul’s officials. Meeting the powerful armed movement’s representatives, something regional states such as Iran, Russia and Central Asian Republics who are less impacted by events in Afghanistan than Pakistan have been doing for a while, would have been a vital reminder to people that Pakistan recognizes its own geographical realities and asserts itself as a stakeholder in Afghanistan.
More importantly, it would have also been a sign to the Kabul regime that Pakistan does not allow itself to be browbeaten by much weaker states and that it recognizes and prioritizes its need to maintain links with the Taliban. How the Kabul regime would have felt about the aforementioned regional states meeting with the Taliban did not factor into their offering of political legitimacy to the Taliban and pragmatic acceptance of them as a political reality in Afghanistan.
For it to compel Pakistan into declining to meet the Taliban, broadcasts to the rest of the world a state which not only does not value or prioritize its own strategic needs but also a state whose foreign policy toward hostile and non-hostile foreign actors is borderline paradoxical. Pakistan by cowing down to the demands of the Kabul regime – which it is important to add does not recognize the Durand Line as the international border as part of its irrational and ill-fated ethnonationalist tendencies – also signals bizarrely its ‘respect’ for the ‘legitimacy’ of the Kabul regime, which the Taliban’s ascendant relevance to regional actors has been steadily eroding.
That the one state the Kabul regime is most hostile to should be the one to attempt to breathe life into the steadily decaying corpse that is its ‘legitimacy’ by giving in to its demands in a manner directly contrary to its own interests and even prestige is curious indeed. Even the US recently demonstrated the menial position the Kabul regime holds in its eyes, with the stern command to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that it would not meet his national security adviser over remarks he had made about US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.
Moreover, a potentially disastrous effect of this move by Khan could be to signal to the Taliban that Pakistan lacks the spine that countries like Iran and Russia do in forging a solution to the Afghan conflict that’s suited to its interests. Given the Musharraf era decisions Pakistan took vis-à-vis the Taliban, the suspicions that might result from Khan’s decision between the Taliban and Pakistan could be deep and propel the Taliban toward India. The latter surely has the economic and financial edge in terms of wooing Afghan factions, regardless of Pakistan’s geographical advantage in gaining strategic depth in the troubled warzone (albeit which Pakistan seemingly refuses to utilize).
Compounding this perplexingly weak posture on display for all regional stakeholders in the Afghan situation is Pakistan’s soft response to the recent killing of 5 Pakistani Pashtun labourers by the Kabul regime’s forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, moreover, have been fighting ISIS in Afghanistan for years, with ISIS comprising leftovers of the Takfiri groups that once plagued much of Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Kabul regime’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), on the other hand has been known to attempt to use these terrorists against the Pakistani state as well, in tandem with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Senior Afghan security and intelligence officials do not conceal their hostility toward Pakistan, either, despite the Pakistani side’s rhetoric toward Kabul being one of misplaced friendliness.
An urgent need exists for Pakistan to pursue its interests in Afghanistan, for which there is considerable scope, and not appease irrational and hostile factions whilst potential allies slowly leave its grip. To act as a meek spectator as Afghanistan’s fate unfolds would be to negotiate itself into a strategic cul de sac which Pakistan would find it very difficult to escape from.
Treating the Kabul regime as the hostile entity that it is would be an adequate and appropriate start to a more assertive stance on Afghanistan.