Fears that Imran Khan’s plea to give Taliban a chance could backfire for Pakistan

Growing unease in Islamabad over mass flow of refugees and history repeating in Afghanistan

Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, addresses the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly remotely. AP
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Pakistan's national security adviser finds it difficult not to gloat as he discusses what has happened in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Moeed Yusuf stresses he does not like to dwell on who was right or wrong, but he can apparently hardly help himself. He says for years Pakistan told America and its allies that their military plans to subdue the Taliban could never work, and that the government they were building in Kabul was shaky.

Islamabad was never listened to, he says, and instead was only leaned on to do more to try to make America's failing plan work by putting pressure on the Taliban. After two decades, America has now been humiliated as the Afghan government collapsed and the US was forced into a panicked evacuation airlift.

The sense of satisfaction and Schadenfreude is echoed in other parts of Pakistan's government, albeit behind closed doors, particularly among the military, say analysts and diplomats. Not only has Islamabad been proven right, it has achieved two foreign policy goals. Firstly, it has seen the influence of its Indian arch-rivals swept from Afghanistan. Secondly, Ashraf Ghani's administration, which was seen as hostile to Pakistan, has fled.

Yet in other corners of the government, beyond this smugness there are also very real fears about the cost of these victories and the significant pain they may bring. The country may have harboured the militants' leadership for the past 20 years and saved them from pursuit by Nato, but the re-establishment of their Islamic Emirate brings many problems. Afghanistan is now in economic collapse and it is Pakistan with its 2,670-kilometre shared border that will be hit by a wave of refugees.

Imran Khan may this week have used a speech to the UN to defend the new Taliban administration, saying the world should give them a chance, but the knock-on effect to Pakistan's own domestic militancy already looks alarming. A vengeful American congress appears intent on making Pakistan pay and there is talk of sanctions.

A western diplomat talks of Pakistan having suffered a “catastrophic success” and says it needs not so much to think about how it can reap the rewards as how it can lessen the damage.

Several big threats appear on the horizon for Pakistan and it is struggling to figure out how to avoid them. With Afghanistan in economic and humanitarian meltdown after foreign aid was suspended and Afghanistan's reserves frozen, a huge number of refugees is expected to try to leave the country and many will try to head to Pakistan.

The World Food Programme estimates only one in 20 Afghan households have enough to eat. There is the risk of militancy being emboldened, particularly from Pakistan's own domestic branch of Taliban, the TTP. If Afghanistan slides into civil war or chaos, the risks from each of these rise sharply.

The risk from these explains why Pakistan is currently pleading with the world to engage with the Taliban, to not abandon them, and to keep funding Afghanistan.

Mr Khan used his speech to the UN's general debate this week to declare that the world had “only one way to go” and apparently give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt over its promises to respect women's rights and form an inclusive government.

“We must strengthen this current government. Stabilise it. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan," Mr Khan said.

Mr Yusuf says the message to engage may be as unpalatable as Pakistan's earlier warnings. “Today we are again saying something to the world that is not fashionable, but it's as true as it was at that time. It may be as difficult to absorb as it was at that time,” he said.

History repeating

If the West abandons Taliban-run Afghanistan, he says history will repeat itself. A security vacuum will form, just as it did in the 1990s, potentially allowing a haven for al-Qaeda, ISIS and others. With the Taliban's first policy steps, including packing its cabinet full of hardline stalwarts, resuming public executions and keeping women from secondary school, Pakistan may well have an uphill struggle however.

Meanwhile, the TTP is already conducting more attacks. Whatever assurances that the Afghan Taliban may have given Pakistan to rein in or mediate with the TTP hiding in Afghanistan, they have yet to bring the desired effect. Deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan hit their highest levels in four years during August, the South Asia Terrorism Portal says. Most of those were attributed to the TTP.

At the same time, there is pressure from American senators to investigate Pakistan's role in the Taliban victory and the issue risks dominating already turbulent relations with Washington. These perils mean that, despite having given India a black eye and seen America humbled, there is considerable unease.

“There's a lot of fear in government and the military establishment, there really is,” says one adviser to the Pakistan administration. “There's a suspicion this is going to end badly for Pakistan."

Updated: October 01, 2021, 10:36 AM