Afghanistan quagmire

Usama Mughal
Life was never easy for the Afghans. It has only become harder after the change of guards in Kabul. While the Taliban have taken over power in Afghanistan without any bloodshed and pandemonium their inability to win international recognition for their rule is putting ordinary Afghans through a situation they have not experienced for almost 20 years.

The formal recognition is being withheld mainly because the Taliban regime is not seen as a satisfactory guarantor of human rights for its people —particularly women and religious minorities. This leads to a number of problems: Taliban officials cannot travel abroad freely — except for a small group allowed to fly between Kabul and Doha; they cannot take part in global forums and international events, such as the United Nations General Assembly and the Conference of Parties (COP) being held in Glasgow to mull over climate change.

The biggest impact of this non-recognition is that Afghanistan remains under de facto economic sanctions that rather than weakening the Taliban are hurting the Afghan people. The main components of these sanctions include:

1) the freezing by the United States of nearly $9.5 billion in assets and bank accounts that Afghanistan has abroad;

2) the de-linking of Afghan banking system from the rest of the world;

3) the deferment of foreign aid and loans for development activities; and

4) the refusal by Poland and France to print Afghanistan’s currency, Afghani, which they were doing before the Taliban takeover.

One of the most obvious consequences of these sanctions is that the Taliban government is unable to pay salaries to its civil servants because it does not have enough Afghanis in its coffers. Another major problem arising out of these is that Afghanistan does not have any dollars to pay for the electricity it imports from its neighbouring countries—Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The financial problems have been made worse by the massive brain drain that Afghanistan has suffered since the fall of the Ghani government. Some estimates suggest that as many as 120,000 people have been evacuated from the country through airlift operations carried out by the Western governments. The evacuees included many of the most qualified professionals in civil service, law, medicine, finance and engineering. Also among them were aid workers and development practitioners. With their absence, international aid agencies have lost local bases to support the population.

All this leads to a foregone conclusion, as enunciated by the World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, that Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises—a situation that it is unequipped to handle on its own. The United Nations is already ringing the alarm bells. In a recent statement, it has warned that millions of Afghans could face starvation in the coming winter. Its estimates suggest that around 23 million people in Afghanistan—more than half of its total population—are already facing acute food insecurity.

All this should be enough to give sleepless nights to Pakistani policymakers since its ripple effects are already being felt strongly on this side of the border. For one, the pressure on Pakistani rupee has increased because of the smuggling of foreign currency, particularly American dollars, from Pakistan to Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister’s Advisor on Finance Shaukat Tareen put the volume of this smuggling at around $15 million a day.

Pakistan should lobby the international community in providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The best way to do so is to work closely with China, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian States.
Some Afghans living in Pakistan have reportedly purchased millions of US dollars from Pakistani currency markets – mostly to hoard them. To discourage these purchases, as well as the smuggling of dollars, the State Bank of Pakistan has now made it mandatory that anyone buying more than 500 dollars a day must provide his or her biometrics so that the authorities can track and trace them.

But foreign currency is not the only commodity being smuggled to Afghanistan. Wheat and wheat flour are also going illegally to the other side of the Durand Line — just as they have always done in recent decades. The smuggling of Urea fertiliser to Afghanistan is also being reported. Pakistan produces the fertiliser using subsidised gas so that its retail price in Pakistani markets is almost half of its international price. This makes it a lucrative proposition for smugglers to buy it from Pakistan at the local price and sell it in Afghanistan at the international price. Consequently, Urea shortages are being reported from several parts of Pakistan ahead of the wheat sowing in November.

Uncertainty and volatility in Afghanistan and its possible ripple effects in Pakistan are another reason why foreigners are reluctant to invest in Pakistan. The suicide attacks and other terrorist activities being carried out by the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter are adding yet another deadly element to the region’s already volatile mix of unrest and terrorism.

The situation leaves Pakistan with very few policy options so it must tread carefully. It needs to maintain a high-stakes balancing act: desist from antagonising Afghan Taliban so much that they start fomenting trouble through their proxies and allies in Pakistan; and prove to the rest of the world that Pakistan is as much opposed to Taliban’s extremist and conservative policies as the rest of the world.

This is not going to be easy. Already some leading American media outlets—such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg — are urging US government to use its influence to make International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance to Pakistan more difficult and to maintain financial restrictions on it through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). They argue that Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban has been a major reason for the latter’s ascendency to power in Kabul. Not being able to either get the IMF assistance or get off FATF’s grey list is something that Pakistan can ill afford given the fragility of its economic and financial sectors.

Pakistan must persuade the Afghan Taliban that they need to form an inclusive government and to respect the global human rights standards.

Yet, Pakistan can ignore the humanitarian crisis brewing in Afghanistan only at its own peril. Having to live through a harsh winter without any external assistance, many Afghans will be left with no choice but to leave their homeland and migrate to Pakistan. Any large-scale exodus of Afghans to Pakistan will not only make the management of Pak-Afghan border extremely difficult, it could also lead to an influx of terrorists masquerading as refugees into Pakistan. Unvaccinated Afghan refugees can also bring new variants of Covid-19 virus to Pakistan.

Pakistan should both lobby and try not to lead the international community in providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The best way to do so is to work closely with China, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian states—the countries that share borders with Afghanistan.

Some quarters suggest that Pakistan should go “beyond the humanitarian approach” to help Afghanistan. They say the two countries should allow barter trade so as to avoid the use of hard-to-come foreign currency. They also put forward the idea that Pakistan should print Afghan currency, open the branches of its banks in Afghanistan and provide both human and financial resources to the Afghan Taliban to run their government in a smooth manner.

To do so without jeopardising its relationship with the United States and its European allies is going to be hard. Jeopardising our relationship with the US would mean inviting more economic hardship. One way of getting out of it could be to chalk out a minimum common agenda— in consultation with China, United States, European Union, Russia, and Iran—of economic and humanitarian engagement with Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, China reaffirmed its supporting role for Afghanistan. Iran has hosted a foreign ministerial conference of Afghanistan’s neighbours to chalk out a regional strategy for dealing with Afghanistan’s emerging situation.

Such regional developments can take the onus off Pakistan to act as a sole saviour of the Taliban government.

Balancing acts are never easy in statecraft. The challenge this time is to balance our Afghan policy with our economic policies.

 

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