The Taliban capture of Kabul on 15 August 2021 represented significant security and foreign policy success for Pakistan. It led to a period of elation in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Four and a half months later the mood is becoming sombre for events have not unfolded as scripted.
Pakistan was very concerned that the hard humanitarian situation in Afghanistan would lead to a mass movement of Afghans across the Durand Line into Pakistani territory. That fear led it to urge the international community to give a large measure of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The absence, as yet, of a flood of refugees from Afghanistan is giving Pakistan relief.
With the Taliban in power in Kabul, the Pakistani Army feels assured that India will not be able to carry out anti-Pakistan moves from Afghan territory. Pakistani fears of India’s potential for such actions was always exaggerated. However, since the establishment of the now demised Afghan Republic, it perceived, quite irrationally, a two-front danger that has now dissipated.
These two elements are positives for Pakistan. But there are negatives which are causing concern. Pakistan had hoped that the Taliban would succeed in gaining international recognition that would pave the way for the stabilisation of the regime and of the country. That has not happened and is unlikely to take place soon for the Taliban are showing insufficient flexibility on gender issues and on minorities. That has, among other reasons, led the US and the West to freeze Afghan deposits in their banks though some funds have now been released for humanitarian needs.
The Taliban are also showing a degree of independence both on important Pakistan-Afghanistan issues and also regarding its regional ties. This is contrary to what Pakistan would like. They are displaying impatience with the fencing of the Durand Line, much to the embarrassment of Pakistan. It is also wanting to open up with India. That too is not what Pakistan would want to happen.
Apart from the Afghanistan situation, Pakistan’s continuing economic difficulties and the significant erosion of goodwill for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government as well as underlying tensions in civil-military relations have contributed to a general feeling of unease in the country.
All these factors will impact Pakistan’s tactical approaches to its relations with India in the immediate future. In turn, India too will closely scrutinise the situation within Pakistan, the unfolding of events in Afghanistan and the dynamics of the Taliban-Pakistan ties as it seeks to determine the course of its relations with Pakistan in 2022 as well as its general approach to its western neighbourhood.
The flow of India-Pakistan ties since 2016 obscures the fact that Prime minister Narendra Modi genuinely wanted to take India-Pakistan relations on a positive trajectory. He surprised the world with his invitation to the then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his inaugural ceremony along with other SAARC leaders in May 2014. For the next 28 months he continued his reach out to Pakistan. In the process, he compromised on the Ufa India-Pakistan joint statement in deference to the desire of the Pakistani generals. He also cut Pakistan slack on the Pathankot terrorist attack of January 2016.
It was only after the Pakistani reaction to the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 and thereafter the Uri attack that Modi turned to a harder policy. That policy got further strengthened with India’s response to the Pulwama terrorist attack of February 2019. Consequently, India-Pakistan ties went into more negative territory. That downward movement got speed with Pakistan’s illogical response to the constitutional changes of 5 August 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir.
It now appears clear, however, that the two countries, with some prodding from external friends, engaged in back-channel talks which led to a ceasefire along the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir in February 2021. For six months thereafter it seemed that the ceasefire would be built upon but that was not to be because Pakistan enthused by the Taliban success and also sensed that Modi could not compromise on the Jammu and Kashmir steps.
By autumn last year Pakistan resumed full propaganda against India, the Modi government and the RSS. Consequently, the relationship continued to be defined by open hostility. It is impossible to conceive that Pakistan would give up its ideological underpinnings which arise from the two-national theory, the foundational principle of the Pakistan state. It is possible for Pakistan though to adopt a pragmatic and flexible approach to India. The question is if in 2022 it will move in a practical and realistic direction with India?
This seems unlikely for despite its stated desire to focus on its economy and give primacy to geo-economics there is no evidence that it is likely to adopt a reasonable policy towards India that would be helpful to its economy and people. Its unremitting enmity towards India which is part of its ideological DNA will prevent such a course to be adopted. However, should Pakistan open up fully on trade with India it will mark a major change in its thinking.
Even if it wishes for tactical reasons to resume trade because that would be useful for its economy, it will be stuck for it has pegged the resumption of bilateral commercial relations to India making concessions in Jammu and Kashmir which include the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir and changes in the Union Territory’s domicile law. The latter is very unlikely though Modi has left the issue of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood open.
On India’s part, if there has to be a positive movement in relations, Pakistan must turn its back on using terrorism against India. That it is unwilling to do for terrorism is part of its security doctrine against India. It has, in the past, calibrated its intensity to suit its tactical purposes. Indeed, there is no evidence that Pakistan is effectively combating groups like the Lashkar or the Jaish even though it has taken cosmetic actions against its leaders on account of FATF pressure; it is on its grey list and is desperate to get off it.
Pakistan is going to keep an eagle eye on India’s Afghan policy. It is no doubt happy that India is not responding to the Taliban’s guarded overtures. This writer has long held that India should have no reluctance in having open contacts with the Taliban for India’s interests demand that — and foreign policy has to be grounded in interests. There is nothing to show that there will be a popular uprising against them. That is the only way they can lose control. It is therefore necessary for India to quickly re-establish its presence in Kabul.
It does not seem likely though that the Modi government will do so till spring. Its attention is for the time being focused on domestic elections and it will not take the risk of taking any controversial foreign policy decisions. Meanwhile, it has been a good move to send medicines, for that does establish a connection. India must also actively pursue the transportation of the pledged wheat through Pakistan.
If despite agreeing that it will allow Indian wheat to go through, Pakistan is putting obstacles then Delhi must expose Pakistan for this. By the middle of the year, Delhi may overcome its reluctance to do business with the Taliban. That would not mean recognising it. India also has to ask itself the question what does inclusive government mean in the Afghan context especially as the Taliban gained power through military success.
The year 2022 will make demands on Indian diplomacy in dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan and it must rise to the occasion.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.