Pakistan's ISI may be Europe's last gateway to Afghanistan

When Islamabad's spy chief touched down in Kabul, he knew his visit meant a lot to the West

A Pakistan Air force C-130 aircraft delivers food and medical supplies donated by Pakistan, at Hamid Shah Baba International Airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on September 10, 2021. EPA
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The visit to Kabul last week by Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) received particularly intense global attention in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Much of the commentary both inside and outside the region framed the visit either as a victory tour, or as that of a patron offering guidance and instruction to their client. Both are almost certainly incorrect.

What is often missed is that Mr Hameed arrived in Kabul at least in part to act as an intermediary for Europe, and, less surprisingly, to remind the Taliban that they still need Pakistan. The foreign ministers of Germany, the UK and the Netherlands all paid visits to Islamabad shortly beforehand, and their Italian counterpart arrived the following week.

Pakistan hopes to increase its leverage over the new Afghan government by helping the Taliban get what they need from the international community. With Washington refusing to engage further, European governments urgently need help securing safe passage for their citizens and Afghan employees left behind after the hasty Nato withdrawal. With the Chinese, Turkish, Iranian and Pakistani embassies being among the few still operating in Kabul, Pakistan has by default become a leading conduit for Europe.

But there are much bigger issues at stake. The Taliban has won, but they must now govern Afghanistan, a country that depends on international donors to finance its day-to-day government operations as well as the costs of longer-term development. The loss of access to the global banking system and to donor funding has destabilised the Afghan economy at every level, leaving ordinary people and institutions alike struggling to find cash. A UN Development Programme report published on Thursday warns that 97 per cent of Afghans could find themselves living below the poverty line by next year – an increase of 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, allegedly the Taliban’s closest foreign ally, has kept a tight lid on the border since the Afghan republic’s collapse, with significant impacts on the highly lucrative cross-border trade between the two countries.

Afghanistan, in short, faces the prospect of economic catastrophe. This not only threatens the Taliban’s uncertain legitimacy with the Afghan people, but its relationship with the country's largest neighbours, Iran and Pakistan. Both have made clear that they do not want to absorb the waves of refugees that would flee Afghanistan’s economic disintegration.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares (L) and Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (R) meet in Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 10, 2021 to discuss the flow of Afghan refugees to Europe. EPA

Europe, where immigration is an explosive political issue, is the next most likely destination for refugees and migrants and also has a major interest in preventing this slow-motion collapse. The EU and Britain might not only resume aid, but could work to persuade US-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank into doing the same.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has publicly indicated its willingness to take back and even prosecute deported undocumented Afghan migrants from Europe. It is a clear signal that the Taliban is sophisticated enough to understand the xenophobic side of Europe’s politics only too well, and how to cater to it. But despite the seeming convergence of interests between Europe, Pakistan and the Taliban, there is still a raft of thorny issues that are ideological enough to make compromise a political and diplomatic challenge.

On the European side, there are serious apprehensions over providing funding to a government with a history of harsh discrimination against women and minorities, and which is unlikely to uphold basic political freedoms. There are also questions over whether what is happening in Kabul is in any way representative of how the Taliban will govern out in the provinces.

The Taliban, for its part, has to maintain an image of sovereign independence to its fighters, and find justifications within its brand of Sharia for whatever policies it pursues.

The Pakistanis have their own deep concerns about what the Taliban might be up to. For one thing, the Taliban has released all prisoners in its territory who are members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an ideologically similar movement that targets Pakistan's government. Consequently, the past fortnight has seen a spike in lethal attacks on Pakistani security forces.

For another, the Afghan Taliban’s Political Commission in Doha seems keen to build a diplomatic relationship with India. But rather than focus only on specific policies, Pakistan has used its leverage to push forward its friends like Sirajuddin Haqqani within for senior positions in the Taliban's new, so-called caretaker government, while attempting to block Pakistan sceptics like Abdul Ghani Barader from the top spot. The cabinet lineup that was announced last week suggests that Pakistan has succeeded, at least for now.

Pakistan likely will be able to continue to facilitate safe passage for European citizens and visa holders, but the question of augmenting the values by which the Taliban will govern, and ensuring they’re acceptable to Europe, let alone the US, could be well beyond its ability to deliver.

Pakistan has, for the past few years, concentrated on repairing its strained ties with the West by acting as a channel of influence to the Taliban. Should the West and the Taliban fail to establish a working diplomatic relationship, Pakistan’s status as a middleman is likely to become even more prominent.

Although it is possible that states like Qatar or even Turkey might take a turn offering diplomatic access, they cannot offer the depth of access to a Taliban-run Afghanistan that Pakistan can. China, Iran and Russia, on the other hand, enjoy deep access, but have no interest in assisting the West.

But it is precisely this middleman role, and Pakistan’s constant pursuit of its own interests in Afghanistan that makes it so dubious in the eyes of the West and the Taliban alike. The three-way relationship of mutual reliance and mutual suspicion seems set to drag on indefinitely, with the unfortunate people of Afghanistan caught in its gears.

Published: September 12, 2021, 3:00 PM