At the initiative of Uzbek President Shavket Miriziev, a high-level conference was held in Tashkent on 15-16 July 2021 to discuss connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia. The conference was attended by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and several Foreign Ministers of regional countries, including the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

By Arvind Gupta

While the delegates deliberated over the potential of connectivity between the two regions, the focus was on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Without peace in Afghanistan connectivity between the two important regions is difficult to establish.

Behind the rising violence in Afghanistan, lies the active Pakistani support to the Taliban. Speaking at the conference, President Ghani accused Pakistan directly of supporting the Taliban. He said 10,000 Taliban terrorists had crossed over from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

This was a serious charge against Pakistan. It did not go unanswered. Imran Khan refused to take any responsibility for supporting the Taliban and instead seemed to justify Taliban action as they are sensing victory with the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The angry exchanges between Ashraf Ghani and Imran Khan led to the cancellation of a high-profile conference of Afghan leaders which Islamabad had convened over the weekend.

In the meanwhile, Vice President Amrullah Saleh tweeted how Pakistan had warned the Afghan Air Force of missile attacks if its aircraft came within 10 km of Spin Boldak where the Afghan National Security Forces were fighting the Taliban. Spin Boldak is an important trade crossing point on the Afghanistan Pakistan border. The Taliban want to control Spin Baldak because it has the potential of generating large revenue for them.

Zalmay Khalizad, the high profile US envoy who brokered a deal between the US and the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, was also present at the Tashkent conference. Expressing his concern that the situation in Afghanistan may degenerate into a ‘long war’, he warned that the US would not recognise a government installed in Kabul by force. This was seen as a veiled warning to the Taliban. He also opined that it would not be an easy victory for the Taliban. It should however be noted that it was the Doha agreement that has lent legitimacy to the Taliban. The US cannot disown responsibility from the current mess in Afghanistan.

The peace process has recently been revived in Doha. Given that heavy fighting is going on between the Afghan National Security forces and the Taliban, the chances of a negotiated settlement are practically nil. The Taliban are using the forum of the talks to get 7000 prisoners who are still in the custody of the Afghanistan government released. The Afghan government cannot afford to give up the only bargaining chip vis a vis the Taliban it has at this stage.

The fact is that the Taliban are simply not interested in a power-sharing arrangement with the Ghani government. Their strategy is to capture as much territory as possible, obstruct the key highways, choke supply lines, destroy the infrastructure and take over the border crossing checkpoints. They have also adopted the tactic of targeted assassinations and engineering defections within the Afghan National Security forces. Realising that the Afghan Air Force will play a crucial role in Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban, the Taliban are targeting the pilots of the Afghan Air Force to cripple it.

The Taliban have resumed their old ways of governance in the areas that they have occupied. The women are being confined to homes, girls schools are being closed and sharia law is being imposed in the territories they did one. There are reports of the Taliban having committed atrocities against the minority ethnic communities in some areas. The prospects of the Taliban’s return is creating fear and apprehensions in the mind of ordinary Afghans who have tasted freedom and democracy in the last twenty years.

With the US and NATO troop withdrawal almost complete, the West is insisting that it is up to the regional countries to deal with the Afghan mess. This is easier said than done. Regional countries have their narrow agendas above which they are unable to rise. The chances of a regional settlement or none too bright.

Instead, the regional countries seem to be driving separate bargains with the Taliban. For instance, the Taliban have publicly praised China and offered that they would not allow the Afghan territory to be used by militants against China. Separate Faustian deals by regional players with the Taliban will complicate the situation. These will not help Afghanistan or the region.

Taliban’s return to power by force would create a highly dangerous situation that will impact regional and global security. We are already seeing the resurgence of the militant groups in the region. Nine Chinese engineers were killed in a terrorist attack in Dassu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently. This is a trailer of what is to come. The Taliban have not broken the connections with Al Qaeda.

In a shocking development, the daughter of the Afghan envoy to Islamabad was abducted and beaten up. The Afghan government has recalled its ambassador and senior diplomats from Islamabad for now. The Pakistan government has tried to downplay the incident. Contradictory signals are emanating from Islamabad as to what happened. A senior minister in the Imran Khan government has publically said that the lady was not abducted. The incident will create apprehensions among the resident diplomatic community in Islamabad.

India needs to be extremely cautious in navigating the uncertainty that is engulfing the region. India specific groups are also in contact with the Taliban. They could become active and foment terrorism in India.

The unsettled situation in Afghanistan is not conducive for connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, connectivity through Iran is possible and should be pursued. That is why the Indian External Affairs Minister has called for the inclusion of Chabahar Port in the International North-South Transport Corridor that provides transit to Russia and Central Asia via Iran. India would have to increase its stakes by investing in the Chabhar-Zahedan rail link.

Pakistan is offering Gwadar port as an outlet to the landlocked Central Asian countries. This is an offer which many Central Asian countries including Uzbekistan are considering. In February 2021 Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have signed a ‘roadmap’ to construct a new 573 km trans-Afghan railway that will follow Tashkent-Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar route. China is dangling the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative to the Central Asian countries. But the uncertain situation in the Af-Pak region is likely to impede these connectivity projects.

Surprisingly, the UN Security Council has been silent on the recent escalation of violence in Afghanistan. The violence threatens to create refugee flows. Already there are reports of human rights violations by the Taliban which continue to be on the UN list of global terrorists. A major humanitarian crisis is in the making.

It should be clear to anyone that Pakistan will not break its ties with the Taliban whom it has nurtured over decades. There have been widespread demonstrations in Quetta in support of the Taliban. It is however equally true that instability in Afghanistan will singe Pakistan also. It will have to deal with the prospects of large refugee inflow, the uptick in drugs and narcotics trade and the resurgence of terrorism in the region. The bomb attack in Dassu has already strained Pakistan China relations.

The international community must call Pakistan’s bluff that it has no control over the Taliban. Pakistan is fully supporting the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A comprehensive regional settlement may not be possible. Separate deal-making should be eschewed and a concerted effort to reach a political settlement must be initiated. The UN Security Council should give a call for an unconditional ceasefire and the start of the political negotiations under its aegis.