The strangest of the several barbs hurled hurdled at Pakistan during and after the recently concluded Heart of Asia conference at Amritsar, India, was that Pakistan is trying to change (Iran’s and Russia’s) perception about the Taliban that has been locked in a bitter conflict for supremacy and control with the government in Kabul for over 15 years.
This came as the seniormost US commander in Afghanistan told the media that Iran and Russia were trying to ‘legitimise’ the Taliban.
The Afghan Taliban recently offered to protect major Afghanistan government projects, such as the mining of Mes Aynak copper deposits (contracted to China), which have not progressed largely for security reasons. The Taliban offer also mentioned the $10-billion Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline project and a regional electricity generation project linking Central Asia and South Asia (CASA-1000).
But the aspect that has got Kabul’s goat is the Pakistani canard which projects the Taliban as the major force fighting to keep the Islamic State (IS) – or Daesh – out of Afghanistan, a critical issue which has had both Iran and Russia very concerned. This after several Afghan security forces personnel have lost their lives battling the IS, with US support.
While the Russian and Iranian ‘feelers’ to the Taliban have been a part of their hedging strategy in Afghanistan for years, particularly so after the recent territorial gains made by the Taliban, it is the effort by Pakistan to increase the acceptability of the Taliban at this point in time which appears ominous.
The Taliban maybe attempting to consolidate its hold on the territory it controls as the insurgency in Afghanistan appears to be reaching a critical point, but it is the external dimension of the Pakistani effort and Taliban’s ‘protection offer’ that would raise some concerns.
The Taliban before the start of the next year’s offensive seems to find it right to announce itself to various stakeholders in the region as the ‘alternative’ to the government in Kabul . The announcement straddles two scenarios; if you do not support the Taliban you get IS in Afghanistan; if you do, you can get on with your copper mining and gas pipelines.