Pakistan and Arabian Gulf strategic proximity over Afghanistan
The political landscape of the greater Asian heartland has been jolted by the recent turn of events in Afghanistan. The militant insurgency of Taliban managed to take control of most of the country’s rural hinterland and provincial capitals as the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and anti-Taliban militias mobilized by different local warlords in different parts of the country failed to put up any significant resistance to the militants’ attacks.
As the Taliban reached the gates of Kabul President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan state apparatus and governmental institutions collapsed. This swift turnaround of political realities within Afghanistan is bound to impact upon the neighboring countries but also various regional groupings.
The Taliban takeover has changed the geopolitical equation in the greater heart of Asia and its reverberations are bound to be felt in south asia, central asia and the middle east. This development has opened up the regional chessboard and it will be unlikely for the political players across the Asian geography to miss out on the emerging political and economic opportunities. In this backdrop the strategic importance of Pakistan has increased manifold particularly for Pakistan’s partners in the Arabian Gulf Peninsula.
As the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan alongside Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries played a major role in supporting the Afghan factions. This cooperation of both countries continued even after the departure of Soviet troops. Post-Soviet Afghanistan was characterised by chaos, mayhem and fighting among various Afghan commanders. This vacuum paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban movement that eventually took over most parts of the country. The new government was not only accepted by Pakistan but also by both Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates signalling a unitary approach on the Afghan file.
The Pak-Saudi relationship has become even more significant and probably for the first time in the last several years, both sides share considerable political and strategic proximity.
After the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan Pakistan and Gulf countries accepted the newly formed Afghan government. Yet both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia did maintain contacts with the Taliban leadership. Qatar as well became the major hub for negotiations and political activity on Afghanistan in the Gulf. Although Pakistan tried to hold sessions of US-Taliban talks in the Kingdom, it never succeeded, and the Taliban leadership wanted to discuss things in Doha.
On issues of political and security concern the Saudi leadership had developed a relatively stable channel of communication with the Afghan government and there remained a greater degree of political coherence on all such matters. However, with the Taliban now in power this calculus has changed. The Taliban 2.0 regime is a relatively different political entity and, in a bid to diversify its political dependency, it has maintained a tacit relationship with Iran and in particular the IRGC-Quds Force. Pakistan remains the only other player with a close working relationship with the Taliban.
It appears that the Taliban decision to militarily settle the issue of resistance in the Panjshir valley by the family of former Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and former Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh has not gone down well with Iran. One has to remember that in the 1990’s the Ahmad Shah Massoud-led Northern Alliance remained an anti-Taliban military formation that among others also courted the support of Iran. Therefore, the concern exhibited by Tehran is only natural. However, in a veiled signal toward Pakistan, the Iranian foreign office condemned foreign interference in Panjshir. This suggests that the Pakistan-Iran relationship may not proceed on a smooth trajectory owing to an escalation in the bilateral competition to pave way for a more favorable political order in Afghanistan.
This new dynamic will inadvertently bring other anxious players into the mix. India, another regional stakeholder, has probably lost the most with the departure of the Ghani government in Kabul. India’s strategy of boxing in Pakistan by creating a perennial security threat on its western border by using Afghan soil is no longer viable. Yet, this doesn’t mean India has run out of options. India does maintain a significant presence in Iran and the case of Kulbhushan Yadav is testament to this Indian use of Iranian soil against Pakistan. It is only logical that India will double down its engagement with Iran in order to keep the western front open vis-à-vis Pakistan.
In this backdrop, the Pak-Saudi relationship has become even more significant and probably for the first time in the last several years both sides share considerable political and strategic proximity.
The greater Pak-Saudi engagement at this stage in Afghanistan will bring political and strategic dividends to both sides and can also be instrumental in pre-empting new political alignments within the region.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89