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Why Pakistan has to engage the Kabul regime both now and post-war

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Abdullah Abdullah (L), Chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, meets with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Islamabad on Sept. 29, 2020.

The conciliatory note that the Afghan peace official Abdullah Abdullah struck during this visit to Pakistan shows that the momentum that the US-Taliban agreement and subsequent intra-Afghan talks have generated need to be capitalized upon by Pakistan in ways that can help the neighbors rewrite their ties for a better and peaceful future in the post-war era.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, bound by geography, history and ethnicity, are permanently locked into a kind of geo-politics that can neither be overridden nor changed.  

It is the logic of geo-politics that is echoed in the maxim that the political and security elite of both countries repeatedly pronounce i.e., peace in Afghanistan is a must for peace in Pakistan. 

That the war is nearing its end (although it is still far from certain as to when it will end) it is time political and security elite of both countries got together to translate the political maxim of inter-dependent peace into reality. 

“We cannot afford to pursue business as usual. We need fresh approaches and our people demand it from us. It is more urgent than ever to look to our region as one region”, said Abdullah in an address in an event in Pakistan. 

There is no gainsaying that the present conciliatory mood in Kabul is due largely to the fact that Afghanistan, in principle, has agreed to enter into talks with the Taliban and allow the latter to get involved in mainstream politics. In other words, Kabul has agreed to get involved in a process that Pakistan has been suggesting for a long time. Hence, the increasing space for the previously opposing political elites to bridge the gap. 

As it stands, Kabul also understands that Pakistan, too, does not want an absolute Taliban domination in Afghanistan. The reason for Pakistan’s approach is the fact that regional powers---China, Russia and Iran---will not agree to an exclusive Taliban rule. Another significant reason for this approach is also the fact that Pakistan no longer exercises exclusive control over the Taliban. This is evident from how the Taliban themselves have started sidelining pro-Pakistan elements in the negotiations. 

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Abdullah Abdullah (R) and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, attend an event in Institute of Strategic Studies, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sept. 29, 2020.

The appointment of Mullah Yaqoob, the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as the head of the Taliban’s military commission, appears to be a result of a concerted Taliban effort to minimize dependence on Pakistan. The appointment was made at the expense of several senior Taliban commanders who could have become members of the team. Yaqoob was appointed because he belongs to a younger generation of the Taliban which carries no baggage of Pakistani patronage.

That Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban are not exclusive any longer became evident when it decided in August to impose UN financial sanctions on the Taliban leaders, including those from the Haqqani network. While it was apparently an effort to avoid being blacklisted by FATF, it also shows that Pakistan wanted to pressurize the Taliban into starting talks with Kabul and get these talks yield some concrete results. 

As one diplomat put it during talks with the author, Pakistan seeks its own redemption through the peace process and ground its policy according to the new realities in and around Afghanistan. 

Significantly enough, Pakistan realizes that post-war Afghanistan will not be solely Taliban-dominated. It is, therefore, extremely important for Pakistan to grow its relations with Kabul’s political elite in order to prevent the latter going too close to New Delhi, Pakistan’s arch-rival in South Asia. 

In other words, while Kabul wants to develop relations with Islamabad to keep Taliban’s political influence in check, Pakistan wants to engage with Kabul to formulate a power-sharing arrangement that caters to its interests, including those related to New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan and its strong tendency to use these ties against Pakistan through tacit support to extremist groups such as those previously run by Kulbhushan Jadhav. 

Abdullah’s visit plus the shared emphasis on building a “common future”, grounded in geographical, historical and ethnic factors, show that ample space for such a future exists. 

Both Kabul and Islamabad need to keep talking; for this is the only way common ground can be maintained and enhanced and the room for doubts and proxies are diminished.