Taliban 2.0: Two years on and the way forward
Exactly two years ago, on the afternoon of August 15, 2021, the Afghan Taliban entered the Arg (palace) in Kabul and retook control of Afghanistan after almost two decades. I was posted as Ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan in those years and oversaw the peace process as well as the take-over. It is important to share the facts of these developments and the way forward now for durable and inclusive peace, harmony, and progress in Afghanistan, as well as productive relations with its neighbors and the world at large.
The Taliban’s take-over of power exclusively in Afghanistan was not according to the spirit of the Doha peace process but happened perhaps because of prevailing uncertainty once the Taliban, after subjugating most of the provinces, reached the vicinity of Kabul. Former President Ashraf Ghani with his few advisors suddenly fled the capital in a special flight, leaving a vacuum which the Taliban had to fill to prevent anarchy. The next two weeks were consumed by a massive evacuation of remaining US and NATO forces, expatriates, and a significant number of Afghans through Pakistan and other countries. On 7 September 2021, the Taliban formally announced their government.
Since then, the world has been engaged with the Taliban mainly on three counts: (1) Afghanistan being a multi-ethnic pluralist country, the government and political framework should be inclusive; (2) Afghans should be provided a dignified human rights framework including girls going to schools and universities and women’s access to work in accordance with Afghanistan’s cultural norms; and (3) Afghan soil should not be allowed to be used by global and regional terror groups. While in these two years, the Taliban have consolidated their hold on the country and governance institutions, progress on these issues has remained quite short of the mark.
It is important that when we talk about Pak-Afghan connectivity and cross-border projects worth trillions of dollars, they cannot materialize with militarized border-crossings and primitive procedures.
In my candid assessment, the international community also made a crucial mistake by starting the pursuit of these goals in a coercive way which, if history provides any testimony, does not work well with Afghans. Just after the Taliban’s entry into Kabul, Afghan state assets were frozen and even today, the country of 40 million people is not allowed international banking. Now after two years, Afghan Taliban should be acting more responsively to the aspirations of their people regarding inclusivity, human rights, and counter-terrorism. At the same time, Afghanistan’s neighbors, the region, and the international community should be taking forward steps to end Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic woes. In such a way, a middle ground might be achievable.
It is also important for Afghanistan and Pakistan to reflect upon their bilateral relations and address divergences. The over 2,600 km long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a theatre of war and conflict for the past half-century. External influences, civil war, and the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have shattered the historic equilibrium of brotherly relations and engagement between the two countries. The focus of the leadership of the two countries should be to restore this equilibrium of dignified and courteous engagement between the two countries and their people – not one of blame game and accusations.
The areas on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are blessed with mineral wealth worth trillions of dollars while estimates of the US Geological Survey had assessed over three trillion dollars of minerals in Afghanistan. It’s ironic that despite having such a quantum of natural wealth, the majority of both people are living in abject poverty and immense suffering. There is a historic opportunity to change this paradigm by transforming it into a border of prosperity and connectivity. Pakistan is making efforts to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment in parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in fields such as minerals, agriculture, and logistics.
Facilitative cross-border connectivity with Afghanistan would open up new avenues for linking these projects towards Afghanistan and Central and West Asia. It is important that when we talk about connectivity and cross-border projects of trillions of dollars, they cannot practically materialize with militarized border-crossings working under primitive procedures. The movement of the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan living in the border belt needs special facilitative and dignified arrangements along with efficient trade and transit systems. A helpful visa regime by Pakistan for Afghans is a bare minimum to move forward on a constructive agenda.
Close engagement by the Afghan side on the challenges of combating terror groups such as TTP or other outfits using Afghan soil for carrying out terrorism in Pakistan, will be immensely supportive towards economic connectivity plans. Since other neighbors of Afghanistan such as China and Central Asian countries are also concerned about the presence of groups like ETIM and IMU, a regional framework would be a practical way to combat terrorism in the longer term and embark on a course to regional connectivity for extending CPEC/BRI through Afghanistan to Eurasia.
In sum, for international acceptability, the Taliban have to bring inclusivity in power structures, address human rights, particularly in girl schools/women rights, and show a commitment to counter-terrorism obligations. For economic progress and connectivity, there should be progress between Afghanistan and its neighbors. Towards these objectives, Pakistan has to play a pivotal role.
- Mansoor Ahmad Khan is Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan. Former ambassador of Pakistan to Austria & PR to UN Vienna. Ex-Chairman UN CND. Twitter @ambmansoorkhan