Less than two months ago, the gang of four – Pakistan, the Taliban, China and Russia – were singing hallelujahs to one another at the humiliation of America in Afghanistan. But now the old fox, Joe Biden, has turned the tables on them.
First he had to get his people out of Afghanistan. Then he would see how the Taliban comported itself. The Taliban under the leadership of the mythical Mullah Akhundzada, who refuses to show his face in public, decided to apply sharia law from seventh century Medina in Afghanistan. Hand amputations, executions, all the good stuff.
Its inclusive government became a very exclusive government, with 31 of 33 members being Pashtun Taliban. Pakistan formed the Afghan government, installing four members of the dreaded Haqqani network in it. But Pakistan asked the Afghan Taliban to control the Pakistani Taliban, which has wrought havoc inside Pakistan itself. The Afghans told the Pakistanis to take a hike. They said that the Pakistani Taliban is free to do whatever it wants.
The Afghan Taliban thought that the world would come rushing to its aid. The Chinese threw them some biscuits and some cake. The Russians didn’t even have those to share. Both the Chinese and the Russians have restive Muslim minorities – in the case of the Chinese, the Uighurs and in the case of the Russians, the Chechens – that have fought alongside the Taliban against the Americans. Now the Chinese and the Russians are mortally afraid that an empowered Taliban will instigate their Muslim minorities further.
Pakistan is already under the grey list of the FATF. It should soon find itself in the black. Twenty two Republican senators have proposed a bill to sanction Pakistan. The bill should pass, given the amount of hatred there is against Pakistan across the aisle. Financial entities like the IMF and the World Bank are controlled by the US and provide money to Pakistan. All that money is expected to stop or slow down.
Shivers are going through Pakistan. Their prime minister, Imran Khan, seems the only leader in the world advocating the cause of the Taliban. Pakistani analysts are pleading for him to stop, but he will not. Not for nothing is he known as Taliban Khan. Pakistanis are worried that Afghanistan will export its seventh-century sharia from Medina to Pakistan. Most Pakistanis want to live in the soft Hinduised lifestyle that they already practice.
There is much consternation in Pakistan that Joe Biden hasn’t called Khan since he became president. But Jen Psaki, the US press secretary, says that the defence secretary of the US, Lloyd Austin, talks to General Bajwa, the Pakistani army chief and that is enough. That means that the US doesn’t believe that Khan is a power centre. What is more galling to the Pakistanis is that President Xi of China, Pakistan’s iron brother, hasn’t spoken to Khan in about two years. Once again the Chinese do their talking with Bajwa. Bajwa was in China recently.
India is delighted at the turn of events. PM Modi staged a coup recently when he had a one-on-one in the US with Joe Biden, as well as with Kamala Harris. Modi is a master at building rapport with world leaders. India, with the Quad, is now firmly in the camp of the US, even if the US will not give it the nuclear submarines that it is offering Australia.
Why is the US applying the squeeze on Pakistan? One would say that forgiveness is a part of realpolitik but honestly it isn’t. Vengeance is. For two decades the Pakistanis played a double game with the US in Afghanistan. With the Afghan Taliban being such master warriors, Pakistan could say that they would have vanquished the US in any case without any help from Pakistan. But the US counters, why did the Pakistanis give this help? Everyone knows why. It’s India. The Pakistanis want strategic depth in Afghanistan against India.
But the Pakistanis played with fire first by antagonizing the Americans and now seem to have caught the Talibani tiger by the tail. Sure they still have influence over the Taliban, but how much it is can be called into question. Right now it seems that the blowback of sharia from Afghanistan to Pakistan could be strong.
The Pakistani army has whipped the Pakistani Taliban once before and is capable of doing so again. But now the Afghan Taliban is free of its fight with the Americans and can freely support the Pakistani Taliban. That means Pakistan might go to war with the Afghan Taliban, the very entity that it has supported all along. Pakistan doesn’t allow such matters of war and peace to be decided by a civilian government. Already there are rumours in Islamabad that Khan might have to cut short his tenure. If the situation gets worse in Pakistan, the military is likely to take over. It already makes all the decisions even now, but it will tear aside any façade of civilian rule.
Does Pakistan deserve what’s happening to it? Pakistan had put all its eggs in the Chinese basket, but the Chinese seem reluctant to take the Americans head-on. They already seem greatly perturbed by the Quad and the AUKUS and the speed at which the Americans have formulated these military alliances. Needless to say, the Chinese would be happy to sacrifice Pakistan at the altar of rapprochement with the US.
So Pakistan is left standing alone. Or worse still with Afghanistan. Neither nation is self-sustaining; both desperately need outside money. The world now conflates Pakistan with Afghanistan. Ordinary Pakistanis hate the world for doing so. Afghanistan had its chance for an inclusive government and rights for women. Pakistan chose the sharia of seventh century Medina for Afghanistan, and installed dreaded terrorists in its government. Pakistan, and Afghanistan, have turned their victory into defeat in less than two months. What a quick turnaround!
The writer is an expert on energy and contributes regularly to publications in India and overseas.