Reports circulated over the weekend that Islamabad hosted an unprecedented summit of regional intelligence chiefs. The Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Tajik ones allegedly participated in this gathering. None of these countries have confirmed this meeting at the time of writing but nor have they denied it either. It thus appears as though these reports have some degree of credibility to them and should therefore be taken seriously. If that’s the case as it seems to be, then this event would have been extremely significant.
Pakistan is the most influential regional stakeholder in Afghanistan and is closer to the Taliban than anyone else. It therefore has a responsibility to help its fellow stakeholders better understand the evolving strategic situation there. That’s especially the case since others like Russia officially regard the group as terrorists even though the Kremlin still pragmatically engages with it in the interests of peace and security. Pakistan’s decades-long insight into the Taliban and Afghanistan more generally is of unparalleled importance to its partners.
Pakistan, China, and Russia are the three countries most actively interacting with the Taliban. Iran’s position is complicated since it also acknowledges the group’s de facto leadership of Afghanistan but recently criticised its Panjshir operation in pretty harsh terms. The Central Asian Republics (CARs) with the exception of Tajikistan are following the first three mentioned countries’ leads while Dushanbe remains opposed to the Taliban, though not yet in any regionally destabilising way such as by supporting anti-Taliban groups.
Tajikistan’s concerns stem from two factors: its kindred ties with ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan which are that country’s second largest minority and have historically been opposed to the Pashtun-majority Taliban’s rule; and the state’s strictly secular system which naturally makes it ideologically opposed to the Islamic group. These interests make that country the only outlier among its fellow stakeholders but its mutual defence alliance with Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) means that Moscow might help manage it.
Their respective relations with the Taliban can therefore be simplified as follows: Pakistan, China, and Russia have the most influence over the group and behave the most pragmatically towards it; Iran is playing a double game as is typical per its diplomatic traditions; the CARs for the most part are non-factors in shaping the course of events in Afghanistan; while Tajikistan could potentially become a troublemaker. Islamabad’s interests naturally rest in aligning their positions so that they can most effectively respond to this new regional reality.
For perhaps the first time in its history, Pakistan has globally significant influence since some of the most important countries in the world such as China and Russia are looking to it for leadership in helping Afghanistan’s stakeholders jointly manage the new state of affairs in the interconnected Central-South Asian space that concerns them all. Their intelligence chiefs reportedly agreed to gather in Islamabad at their host’s invitation because they tacitly acknowledge that country’s newfound leading role in shaping the future.
Pakistan was proven right by recent events in Afghanistan after having consistently supported the Taliban’s participation in the political process there. For a while, it was the only country in the world with this position, which eventually became the global norm after the group was invited to travel to Russia, China, and Iran for peace talks and ultimately signed its February 2020 deal with the US. The reality in which everyone is now operating was therefore first envisioned by Pakistan, which has the most experience planning for this scenario.
The South Asian state also unveiled a new multipolar grand strategy in March during the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue that’s perfectly suited for accommodating all stakeholders’ strategic interests. Pakistan informally regards itself as the “Zipper of Eurasia” for connecting the supercontinent’s various regional integration blocs, which when combined with its hosting of the Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its expansions (CPEC+), could make it the “Global Pivot State”.
In practical terms, Pakistan envisions February’s agreement for a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway functioning as the war-torn state’s economic jugular for sustainably rebuilding its economy. It would also enable Russia to finally fulfill its centuries-long goal of reaching the Indian Ocean. In addition, China could reach its new 25-year strategic partners in Iran by pioneering a “Persian Corridor” through Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This vision is mutually beneficial and satisfies all stakeholders’ geo-economic interests.
Sceptics dismissed this as political fantasy up until the Taliban seized power and turned this scenario into the most likely regional reality. It can’t be known for sure, but Pakistan might have taken the opportunity afforded to it by the reported intelligence summit in Islamabad to brief its counterparts on this vision in an attempt to assess their respective will to jointly implement it. The country would also have suggested practical means for them all to contribute to ensuring Afghanistan’s security in both the soft and hard dimensions.
Regarding the first, China is already emerging as the champion in this regard after promising $31 million of aid to the country to help mitigate its colossal socio-economic challenges. It’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things but is a positive step in the right direction that could inspire others like Russia to follow suit, after which Iran and the CARs (with the exception of Tajikistan which requires its own aid to deal with the refugee crisis) might do so as well through their own modest means.
Concerning the second, hard security is already being ensured through Russia’s proactive efforts to coordinate its Central Asian allies’ response to Afghan-emanating threats such as ISIS-K and large-scale refugee waves that could be exploited as so-called “Weapons of Mass Migration”. Pakistan has also fenced off most of its border with Afghanistan and built many forts along it. As for Iran, it too is doing its utmost to prevent the spillover of Afghan-emanating threats but everyone’s efforts would be improved if they coordinated them through the SCO.
Speaking of which, that organisation’s heads of state summit will be held in Dushanbe later this week from 16-17 September. It might turn out to be the case that the reported intelligence summit in Islamabad results in the pertinent countries agreeing to certain suggestions for jointly managing Afghanistan’s soft and hard security, though of course only if Russia can succeed in preventing its Indian ally from undermining these efforts in pursuit of its zero-sum interests at their collective expense.
In any case, the reported summit was significant because it symbolised Pakistan’s newfound geostrategic importance in shaping the future of Eurasia after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Islamabad’s close ties to the group, its regional connectivity vision, and its multifaceted soft & hard security experiences are all extremely useful to its fellow stakeholders who are now following its lead in adapting to this new regional reality. The reported summit thus signified Pakistan’s rise as a regional power that can no longer be ignored.