Pakistan vs Afghan Taliban: Resetting ties with the West
Pakistan’s military looks for western help with sovereign debt
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Border clashes between the Pakistan military and the Afghan Taliban, which have escalated into Pakistani airstrikes inside Afghanistan, killing at least 47 including women and children, directly involve the recent regime change in Islamabad, Pakistan and amount to a direct attempt to tilt toward the United States and the west.
While the Pakistani military hasn’t officially commented on the strike, the foreign ministry said it was a response to terrorists’ use of “Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan.” It came after an attack that killed at least seven soldiers in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region that was attributed to militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban, who have become an increasing nuisance against the government.
On the face of it, Pakistan’s airstrike seemed like a retaliation. But there is much more to it than meets the eye. To begin with, Pakistan decided on an airstrike instead of using its Afghan proxies to target the terrorists. That is because Islamabad is using the action to reset its dwindling ties with the US in particular and the West in general.
Those ties hit a new low after the former Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Moscow in February on the eve of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and supported Russia’s stance on the war. Khan was ousted on a no-confidence motion in the parliament on April 2, spurring him to claim that the US was involved in a conspiracy to remove him. The US denied this claim.
Khan’s ouster, as I wrote previously for Asia Sentinel, was more the outcome of a split with the powerful military establishment than anything else. While Khan was propagating a US conspiracy, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa (pictured above) called Pakistan’s ties with the US strong and resilient. In a speech delivered in Islamabad days before Khan’s ouster, Bajwa reminded his audience that the US was – and is – Pakistan’s largest export market, which is why Pakistan cannot afford to wean permanently away from Washington.
Khan’s US conspiracy claims led to the suspension of the International Monetary Fund’s program for Pakistan. But Bajwa’s words stressing the US ties and Khan’s subsequent ouster were apparently not enough to reset Pakistan’s ties with Washington in ways to open up the possibility of IMF support and financial assistance from Washington and the EU.
Pakistan badly needs financial support. Of the US$11.3 billion that the State Bank of Pakistan has in its foreign exchange reserves, about 80 percent belongs to China, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which gave billions in credits to Pakistan on the condition that the money wouldn’t actually be used, as a ‘grace deposit’ to help the government avoid bankruptcy. Therefore, if the IMF were to stop its program, Pakistan would be in serious trouble.
To avoid the kind of economic meltdown happening in Sri Lanka, Pakistan has sought an alternative way to appease Washington and the EU: it has decided to undermine the Afghan Taliban regime, which it supported throughout the entire 20-year history of the Afghan war. In this context, Pakistan’s airstrike in Afghanistan was not simply against the Pakistani Taliban. It was very much against the Taliban regime itself, which took power in August 2021.
First of all, Pakistan’s decision to completely bypass Kabul shows Islamabad’s disregard for a regime that, while it initially helped it come into power, lacks international legitimacy. An attack on Afghanistan thus directly undermines the Taliban’s claims to provide for the security and safety of its citizens under its auspices.
This is something that directly suits Washington’s needs, which sees attempts by China and Russia to fill the vacuum left with the US departure from Afghanistan as a direct challenge to its interests. China recently confirmed its eagerness to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a US$62 billion collection of infrastructure projects under construction throughout Pakistan, to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s airstrike shows that the newly installed Shahbaz Sharif regime, while eager to revive the ailing CPEC in Pakistan itself, doesn’t share Beijing’s enthusiasm for expanding it, at least at the moment.
For now, Pakistan is focused on the US. As reports in the mainstream US media indicate, Washington has been meeting in Tajikistan with leaders of Afghanistan’s National Resistance Front (NRF) being led by Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former interior minister and head of intelligence. The NRF aims to start an armed resistance against the Taliban pretty soon.
With an armed resistance going on, it will become a lot more difficult for Kabul to win recognition – not only from the US and Europe but also from China and Russia. Beijing, the thinking goes, will be forced to take a step back from extending CPEC.
Therefore, with Pakistan now taking steps that undermine the Taliban’s unrecognized government, it comes as good news for the western-backed NRF and its sponsors in Washington. The NRF, while it condemned the killing of children and women in the airstrike, said that the “Taliban-occupying regime (is) the main cause of foreign aggression in Afghanistan. We emphasize the dismantling of the occupiers and proxy groups in Afghanistan.”
Much to the pleasure of Pakistan’s new administration, Washington did not condemn Pakistan’s airstrike – something that singles a growing convergence between both.
As it stands, the IMF, too, has already expressed its willingness to “work” with the new government, which means the Fund will extend its program and provide the rest of the US$3 billion to Islamabad to help it improve its dwindling economy. As recent reports indicate, the IMF has even increased its package from US$ 6 billion to US$ 8 billion.
But this is not going to be smooth sailing. There are major challenges. First, the Taliban can retaliate by extending more support to the TTP to carry out attacks inside Pakistan. A new wave of terrorism could emerge. Second, Pakistan will have to find a way to balance ties with Washington and China without getting involved in the “new cold war.” Pakistan’s military and economic ties with Beijing are too deep to be altered to appease Washington.
Therefore, while Pakistan takes steps to appease Washington, there is little denying that appeasement has a price tag, which authorities in Pakistan may not be able to afford.