Pakistan is emerging as one of the biggest supporters of the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, despite years of profiting from the US counter-terrorism programme in the region.
This pragmatism was on show on Monday as a Pakistani International Airlines flight touched down in Kabul, becoming the first commercial flight to arrive in the Afghani capital in nearly a month of Taliban take-over.
The flight, AFP reported on Monday, was carrying about a dozen passengers, and the Airline indicated it was ready to resume scheduled flights in future. The Boeing 777 aircraft wasn’t the only flight to arrive from Pakistan in Kabul in the past three days. Military aircraft have been delivering relief items to Kabul and the country has helped evacuate some foreigners stuck there.
Zahid Chafeez Chaudhri, the outgoing Pakistani Foreign Ministry Spokesman (now High Commissioner-designate to Australia) tweeted on Sunday that the flights reflected “our bidding commitment to the people of Afghanistan.” Pakistani International Airlines would be delivering food and medicine, he said.
Pakistan made the announcements as donors gathered in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss relief programmes for Afghanistan, seemingly stealing a march in the bureaucracy of humanitarian aid.
Arriving at Kabul as a commercial flight is fraught with danger. Insurance firms have been declining approval for such schedules and those who come either have to take risks or at least have a special arrangement with the Taliban security on the ground.
Yet the airport was partially damaged two weeks ago after an ISIS group prevalent in the region partially blew it up amid chaotic evacuation scenes.
Pakistan though says it is very interested in seeing the new administrations settle down, serve the people and help bring peace to a troubled region.
“The world needs to come together to help Afghanistan prevent an economic meltdown. Let's rise above geo-politics and rebuild Afghanistan,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistan Foreign Minister said last week at a think-tan forum, according to his Twitter page.
“No other country has a greater interest in peace than Pakistan. AS continuation of the conflict is not in our interest.”
Pakistan senior leaders including Mr Qureshi and Prime Minister Imran Khan have pushed for a positive view of the Taliban. They have spoken to a dozen world leaders including those in the West, Russia and China. Mr Qureshi said he had met 20 foreign ministers, including all neighbouring countries for Afghanistan. At a meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani, Qureshi said the world must “engage actively” in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, however, has been unpredictable in the past. When the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001, it turned out the mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Mokhtar planned them while holed up in Pakistan. And when the leader of al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan soon after 9/11, he hid in Pakistan. Pakistan did not formally endorse al-Qaeda, but the prevalence of terror groups operating from its soil led then US President Donald Trump to accuse Islamabad of “lies and deceit.” In a decision holding back aid to Pakistan in 2018, Trump argued Pakistan had given back little to show for the more than $13 billion in military aid since 2003. Pakistan has, in total benefited from more than $33 billion in aid from the US.
Pakistan, had, before the Taliban took over, helped broker a mediation arrangement which led to talks in Qatar, with the now-defunct government in Kabul. Experts think this pragmatism is a tool by Pakistan to serve its local and foreign interests.
Vinay Kaura, an Assistant Professor of international affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in India argues the US could lose its shirt in the wake of Taliban take over.
“Washington’s failure to penalise Pakistan would further diminish America’s position as a global power while damaging its credibility among allies,” he argued in a blog post last week.
“If the US is keen to retain a semblance of credibility on the world stage, there has to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington to act against Pakistan.”
His is a doubt that Talibans could follow through and expel terror groups that have profited from the chaos there. Pakistan and Afghanistan have similar ethnic communities and the rulers of Taliban come from a tribe that transcends the borders. Pakistan also hosts nearly 1.4 million Afghani refugees, according to the UN, although there could be millions more unregistered. This may explain why Pakistan did not take sides with groups under the Northern Alliance movement who had demanded constitutional order ahead of Taliban take-over of what they called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Instead, officials only asked for support for Afghanistan to settle down.
In fact, some news agencies reported that some radical groups in Pakistan celebrated the Taliban take over, perhaps assured now that it could serve their interests and renew ties. After the Taliban stormed Kabul, Prime Minister Khan told a gathering Afghanistan had “had broken the shackles of slavery”, an indirect jab at US’s two-decade war in Afghanistan.
Khan did not name Taliban, and in fact, argued for all sides to take an inclusive political solution. But Raoof Hasan, his special aide wrote on Twitter that “Afghanistan is presently witnessing a virtually smooth shifting of power from the corrupt [former President Ashraf] Ghani government to the Taliban.”
“The contraption that the US had pieced together for Afghanistan has crumbled like the proverbial house of cards.”
Ghani’s government had criticised Pakistan for siding with Taliban. Some experts think the US bears a bigger brunt than Pakistan when it comes to the failed war on terror.
“Pakistan has been seen and treated as an unreliable ally by the United States in the War on Terror over the last two decades,” Hashim Pasha, a Havard-certified negotiator wrote in a blog on the Atlantic Council website, who argues that may overstate Pakistan’s capabilities and absolve US failures.
“However, channelling frustration and anger towards Pakistan now would be another strategic misstep at this crucial point in time for the region.”