Victory or calamity?

Adnan Rafiq
Sunday, Oct 10, 2021

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has important security implications for Pakistan. While much is being written on various aspects of the events unfolding next door, it is important to make a holistic assessment. I shall attempt to do this by bifurcating the potential implications in the strategic and ideological realms.

Viewed from a strategic realist lens, the failure of the former Afghan government to establish a sustainable state structure, the dwindling apatite in the West including the US for continued military and economic assistance and the remarkable resilience shown by the Taliban in sustaining the insurgency meant that the fall of Kabul was inevitable.

While all relevant countries in the region and beyond have their own set of preferences in the composition of the new Afghan government, a Taliban-led regime seems to be a more acceptable outcome for Islamabad when viewed through an Indian-centric lens. After all, given the efforts made to mend relations with the Taliban since the U-turn after 9/11, they are expected to be a bulwark against India’s security footprint in the country.

A Taliban-led regime is also expected to fit nicely with Islamabad’s efforts to enhance trade and economic cooperation with the Central Asian States irrespective of its relations with India. The former Afghan government had conditioned this with access to the Indian market and vice-versa. Despite these perceived gains, there are reasons to worry as well on the strategic front.

First, the US is embarrassed by the swiftness of the fall of the former Afghan government. There is an impression that some quarters in the Pakistani state structure had a role to play in this and are feeling triumphant. The optics of official visits to Kabul added further fuel to this perception. This can hurt the country’s long-term engagement with the West, including with Western-backed financial institutions as well as economic and security cooperation.

The Taliban and the US hold their respective leverages against the other. The Taliban are the only force in Afghanistan that can deny pan-Islamists space in the country while the US holds the Afghan central bank reserves as well as the carrot of economic assistance and the threat of sanctions and in the worst case redeployment of military force.

In order to consolidate its perceived gains and protect itself from potentially harmful effects of the Afghan endgame, Pakistan needs to help nudge the Taliban to meet the international community’s minimum requirements. These include formation of a somewhat inclusive government to enhance its legitimacy, respect for at least the minimum standards for human rights and keeping international terrorist outfits at bay.

Only when the international community is satisfied with the above can there be some strategic equilibrium.

Onto the ideological front. This is where Pakistan needs to publicly distance itself from the Taliban regime on two issues. First, their religious interpretation and its political use; and second, the use of force as means to capture power. A combination of both can galvanise social forces in Pakistan that will pose a serious threat to the state and mainstream society in the country.

Already the Taliban’s return to power is being hailed as a victory of Islam and welcomed by a range of religious actors. Along with the oft-feared reemergence of the TTP and resultant increase in terrorist activity, the rise in intolerance and extremism within society poses an equally potent threat.

As an imagined community, the adherents of the Taliban’s way of life stretch far and beyond the Kalashnikov wielding bearded youth in Afghanistan. There is a Talib in every neighbourhood, if not the household. They cut across various social and institutional boundaries and have presence in all segments of society. While these do not represent Islam or the majority opinion among the Muslims on the issues of modernity, political Islam and human rights, they do have an impact on every sphere of life. Furthermore, despite being in minority, they are generally more organised than the liberal or moderate sections of society.

The social impact of the Taliban’s ascendance will further strengthen patriarchal attitudes, leading to a rise in gender-based violence, persecution of minority communities and greater acceptance of authoritarian political systems in the Muslim world. It will further entrench an ‘us versus them’ mindset that divides people on the basis of their faith and lifestyle choices and seeks adherence to an exclusive vision of these through the use of force.

One hopes that Pakistani elites have learnt by now that, once unleashed, such regressive forces cannot be controlled. With a struggling economy and a large number of unemployed, uneducated and frustrated youth, the mass discontent can transform into violent ideological movements resulting in chaos and bloodshed.

A proactive policy is therefore needed to deal with the situation. This requires a political consensus along the same lines as 2014. Immediate steps are needed in the short term to indiscriminately disrupt organised violent networks of all hue and color. The counter-narrative against extremism and authoritarianism needs to be strengthened on a war footing. Pro-growth economic policies and expansion of the social protection net is necessary to retain some hope among the youth.

Steps are needed to ensure greater inclusivity in governing the state along political, ethnic, religious and gender lines. The state must view civil society as a partner against extremist tendencies. Only an open, inclusive and just society can withstand pressures from fascist populist movements. If urgent steps are not taken, what may appear to be a short-term strategic victory to some, may soon turn into a long-term social calamity. God forbid.

The writer is a public policy analyst based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @adnanrafiq