Pakistan got its way in Afghanistan. Now what?
The victory of its friends in the Taliban may exacerbate Pakistan’s economic and diplomatic problems
Oct 7th 2021
DELHI AND ISLAMABAD
Until 2013 Salma Tanveer ran a private school in a suburb of Lahore, Pakistan’s second biggest city. She and her husband, a civil engineer, were pious Muslims who had travelled to Mecca six times. Then things went wrong. The preacher in a local mosque accused her of blasphemy, claiming she had suggested that Muhammad might not have been the last prophet. On September 27th a lower court in the city pronounced its verdict. Ms. Tanveer is to be fined 50,000 rupees ($290), and also “hanged by her neck until death”.
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That may never happen. So far no one sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan has actually been executed—although, of the nearly 2,000 people charged with the crime since the law was made more ferocious in the 1980s, 128 have been killed by angry mobs. In Ms Tanveer’s case it is the supposed experts who have run amok: in 2014 a panel of psychiatrists had declared her mentally ill and so unfit for trial, only to change its mind five years later.
Ms Tanveer’s situation is extreme, yet her predicament is in some ways a reflection of the peculiar, precarious balance that Pakistan itself has long sustained. In one avatar it is a nuclear-armed modern state that can hold elections, rely on scientific advice from highly qualified professionals and run courts where simple decency sometimes prevails. Yet its other face is a country of cruel and primitive laws, ill-educated mobs and people in power who are happy to make use of both.
Pakistanis are skilled at smoothing over such tensions, or simply ignoring them, but at crucial moments it is hard to do either. The dramatic return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which shares a 2,640km-long border with Pakistan, has been one of those moments. Since the ignominious collapse of Afghanistan’s Western-backed regime last month, after an expensive and violent 20-year experiment in democratisation, Pakistan has oscillated uncomfortably between relief and anxiety. Pakistan’s powerful deep state has for decades quietly backed the Taliban. Now, as the group’s closest friend and main conduit to the outside world, Pakistan bears a big responsibility for Afghanistan’s fate. Yet it is far from clear whether the tactical advantage won by chasing other players out will translate into longer term gains—boosting Pakistan’s diplomatic weight and opening opportunities for commerce—or whether this unsteady country of 220m will be sucked into yet more Afghan turmoil, this time with no one else to blame.
Many in Pakistan—55% according to a recent Gallup poll—are pleased to have the Taliban ruling next door again, and delighted to see a bunch of sandal-clad Muslim peasants humiliate an infidel horde equipped with drones and satellites. “It is a great achievement,” crows Zainullah Achakzai, a soft-drink vendor in the border town of Chaman, midway between Quetta in Pakistan and Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Other Pakistanis see the end of the Western-sponsored regime in Kabul as an ominous warning. They fear the return of old disorders associated with Afghanistan, such as jihadist terror, an influx of destitute refugees and ostracism by other countries. Already radical Islamists have raised the Taliban flag over mosques in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and attacks by Muslim radicals within Pakistan have ticked up again after several years of decline. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a monitoring site, Pakistan saw more big incidents in the first nine months of this year—67, with 329 people killed—than in all of 2020. The steepest rise has come in the past two months, in areas along the Afghan border.
All the more worrying for Pakistanis is the fact that the Taliban, on capturing Kabul, opened prisons and freed, among others, Faqir Muhammad, a leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (ttp), a terrorist group responsible for some of the worst massacres in Pakistani history. The ttp is thought to have as many as 5,000 men hiding in Afghanistan. On his release Mr Muhammad declared that the imposition of sharia in Afghanistan proves that it is possible to adopt it in Pakistan, too. He was referring to the same violent interpretation of religious law that the Taliban practise, and meant that his group would fight to bring it to Pakistan. “Every day brings renewed evidence of the extreme dangers posed to Pakistan,” tweets Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist. “Taliban enthusiasts have to choose between the (Pakistani) republic and their ridiculous juvenile fantasies.”
You know my other side
In some ways Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, also embodies the country’s contradictions. A product of its privileged Anglophone elite, a former cricket star and global playboy, he is also a moralising religious conservative, an economic populist and an obedient servant of the generals who call the shots in Pakistan. His government recently proposed a law that would prescribe up to two years in jail for any civilian who “ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the armed forces of Pakistan”. The draft stipulates that such cases should be tried in military courts. In a meeting with Islamic scholars last month, Mr Khan declared that under his rule no new law would ever go against religious guidelines.
Dismissed by some as “Taliban Khan”, and so far not even accorded a phone call from President Joe Biden, the prime minister has been a passionate and articulate defender of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Given space on the opinion pages of the Washington Post, he detailed the heavy cost in lives and money that Pakistan has paid because of the troubles next door, and voiced exasperation that Western governments failed to grasp that many Afghans viewed nato troops as no different from the Soviet ones who invaded two decades earlier. “Surely Pakistan is not to blame for the fact that 300,000 well-trained and well-equipped Afghan security forces saw no reason to fight the lightly-armed Taliban,” he wrote.
Mr Khan left out other pieces of the puzzle. He did not mention that much of the Taliban leadership has enjoyed a long and close relationship with both Pakistani Islamists and the isi, the country’s intelligence service. He failed to note a crucial difference in perspective: for Pakistan’s generals the danger of blowback from jihadism in Afghanistan, while real—Mr Khan says his country suffered 16,000 terror attacks between 2006 and 2015—was always weighed against the crucial mission of keeping Pakistan’s greatest enemy, India, out of their backyard.
The prime minister also neglected to explain that Pakistan’s spies have long favoured the Taliban because, unlike traditional Afghan nationalists, the religious fanatics care little for historic Afghan claims to bits of Pakistani territory and do not speak of uniting Pushtuns, a 60m-strong ethnic group that is divided by the border. And needless to say Mr Khan did not remind his American audience that Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, spent years concealed in a big house in Pakistan, next door to an army base and retired army officers, before being found and dispatched by American Navy Seals.
Still, the outcome in Afghanistan would seem to be good for Mr Khan. Since winning power in 2018 the prime minister has struggled to maintain popularity. Many Pakistanis, aware that the army is the real power in the land and more concerned with rising prices than political antics, see little change in their lot. Mr Khan’s relentless crusade against allegedly corrupt former officials, which included hounding the previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, out of the country, has proved more divisive than popular, although it has succeeded in disrupting and weakening opposition parties. His government’s clumsy efforts to tame Pakistan’s often surprisingly feisty press, by threatening reporters and owners, blocking websites and proposing a law to create a mostly state-appointed oversight board for all media, has not so much won kinder coverage as generated mistrust of the government.
Yet Pakistan’s victory-by-proxy in Afghanistan now makes Mr Khan look prescient, with his forthright argument for the world to accept the reality of the Taliban and to send aid to Pakistan’s poor “brothers”. It helps, too, that for reasons that are not yet understood, covid-19 appears to have hit Pakistan far less hard than its neighbours. The death rate per million in Iran is more than ten times Pakistan’s. Criticised in spring last year for his decision not to impose a sweeping lockdown as India did, Mr Khan now appears wise. An opinion poll at the end of August gave the prime minister a 48% approval rating, his highest yet. With the full backing of the deep state guaranteed, and opposition parties reduced to regional rumps, there is no one significant to stand against him in the next election, in 2023. Not only may Mr Khan become the country’s first prime minister to complete a full term. He may be the first to serve two consecutive ones.
Can no longer hide
That would please Rawalpindi, the twin city to Islamabad that houses army hq and is synonymous with its overweening power. Having tried coups d’état in the past, Pakistan’s generals, fixated on the struggle against a far bigger India and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle of “cantonments”, have learned that it is better to erect a presentable political facade than to get too involved in the messy business of direct rule. But this can be tricky. The previous prime minister, Mr Sharif, often chafed against orders. Not so Mr Khan. “Both sides seem to be working very well together, essentially as one unit, in this government,” says Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington.
From the generals’ point of view there is no ambiguity about the outcome in Afghanistan. It is, after all, what they have worked for, stealthily and patiently, for years. They viewed the departed regime as at best unreliable and at worst hostile. Correctly or not, Pakistani intelligence has long obsessed over Indian spies using Afghanistan as a springboard for sabotage. Now Pakistan can with greater assurance face an India that has grown more aggressive under the Hindu-nationalist government of Narendra Modi.
That the collapse in Kabul was swift and almost bloodless was an added bonus. Another plus is that Pakistan has shown its closest ally, China, that it was right all along: that the Americans would not last, and that Pakistan, which has been a sink for Chinese aid without really extending the Asian power’s strategic reach, may in the end have something to deliver.
In the Taliban Pakistan’s generals have gained not perfect allies, but a group over which they exercise more leverage than anyone else. Significantly, the interim government announced by the Taliban in September appeared to demote several figures seen as estranged from Pakistan and to promote those closest to it. Senior members of the Haqqani network, widely seen as a cat’s paw of the isi, hold several positions in the cabinet, including minister of the interior. Mohammed Yaqoob, the new defence minister and son of Mullah Omar, a Taliban founder, is also pally with Pakistan. It was no coincidence that a relaxed-looking Faiz Hameed, then the Pakistani intelligence chief, had himself appeared in Kabul shortly before the announcement. Many in Islamabad caution, however, that, although the Taliban clearly listen to advice, they may not always do as they are told, and may indeed split into factions and thus be unable to do so in any case.
If Pakistan’s military and civilian bosses have both profited from the change of guard in Kabul, what about everyone else? Despite escaping the worst effects of covid-19, the country is not in good health. Over the past decade gdp per person has grown by less than 2% a year on average (see chart 1). At barely $1,200 it is not even two-thirds of India’s.
By other development indicators, too, Pakistan trails its region. The only South Asian country with a lower life expectancy is Afghanistan. With its exports performing poorly and imports from China soaring (and crushing many local industries), Pakistan has grown increasingly reliant on remittances—worth $21bn in 2019—to prop up its balance of payments. Its other crutch has been bail-outs from the imf: Pakistan has received 22, more than any other country (see chart 2).
Though the prospect of becoming a regional trading hub remains a distant dream, Pakistan faces a more immediate crunch. Mr Khan ran for office promising to build an Islamic welfare state. What Pakistanis have experienced instead is inflation—which reached 11% in April but has now cooled to 9%—and a currency that has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar since he became prime minister. Rising global oil prices are set to deliver another unwelcome jolt.
Shaukat Tareen, Mr Khan’s fourth finance minister, has been trying to persuade the imf to ease terms on a $6bn bail-out that was agreed in 2019, but then delayed until February this year after the prime minister balked at the required belt-tightening. The release of an added $2.75bn in special drawing rights in August, Pakistan’s automatic share of the imf’s global push to compensate countries for covid troubles, came in the nick of time to prop up sliding confidence. In July the stock of Pakistan’s foreign debt swelled to some $122bn, close to 50% of gdp and, more worryingly, almost five times the value of its net foreign-currency reserves.
Much of this debt is now held by China, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” and its partner in one of the most ambitious branches of the Belt and Road Initiative. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (cpec) is supposed to see some $67bn of Chinese investments in Pakistan (see map), much of it in vital power plants and transport links. But according to a new study by AidData, a research group, of the $34.3bn in assistance promised by China between 2000 and 2017, at least $27.8bn has come in the form of loans on commercial terms, rather than the concessional lending typical of Western aid.
To the discomfort of Pakistan’s generals, who might wish for greater independence, the country has also grown increasingly dependent on China for arms. Pakistan alone soaked up a hefty 38% of total Chinese weapons exports between 2016 and 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank.
Yet China has not always been happy with what is, in effect, its closest ally of any size. Repeated terrorist attacks targeting Chinese workers, including one in July that left nine of the visitors and four Pakistanis dead, have diminished trust. The remoteness of China’s border with Pakistan from its industrial heartland and still-poor road linkages mean there is little overland trade. Whatever the alignment of their interests, Pakistan’s economy is just 1.75% of China’s. Small wonder that Mr Khan, a champion of Islamic causes everywhere else, keeps quiet about the incarceration of China’s Muslim citizens in Xinjiang.
The payoff to Pakistan for such loyalty is that China lends immense and increasing weight to its otherwise disadvantageous balance of power with India. This has a downside for regional stability, in that it makes Pakistan unwilling to compromise over its eternal claims to the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, which in turn provokes Indian mulishness over its own counterclaims. In 2019 a suicide bomb, for which a Pakistani group claimed responsibility, killed some 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir, provoking clashes that came close to open warfare between the nuclear rivals. Later that year Mr Modi’s government stripped Kashmir of its limited autonomy. This might in the past have roused international condemnation. The lack of it has painfully exposed Pakistan’s waning influence.
Let you down so many times
Mr Khan’s current diplomatic offensive comes in the context of the dwindling options bequeathed by his country’s feeble economy, hypocrisy over Xinjiang and long history of double-dealing. “Pakistan is trying to use Afghanistan to rehabilitate itself,” says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center, an American think-tank. “Its message is that we were right all along, there never was a military solution, so it is wrong to blame us.” What Pakistan now wants is for other countries to lend a hand, and help shore up the Taliban government as the only way of sustaining regional stability. The trouble is that, just as Pakistan’s leaders imagine the country’s strategic significance to have grown because it holds unique influence over the Taliban, the West’s withdrawal has entailed a steep decline in its interest in the region.
Mr Khan may well be right that the best hope for preventing a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan now, and for keeping a grip on jihadist groups that linger on its soil, is to help the Taliban keep a lid on things. “If Afghanistan destabilises, the spillover effect comes to Pakistan,” says Moeed Yusuf, Mr Khan’s national security adviser. “After Afghanistan we are the biggest victim of the past four decades and we are not interested in going there again.” But coming from a country that has for so long run with the foxes while hunting with the hounds, as Pakistan has, such words carry limited credibility. ■
The victory of its friends in the Taliban may exacerbate Pakistan’s economic and diplomatic problemswww.economist.com
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