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Taliban and their neighbours



INITIALLY eager to see the Afghan Taliban take control in Afghanistan, Pakistan now grapples with unmet expectations. Two years on, issues like cross-border terrorism remain unresolved and pose significant security risks. Afghanistan’s other neighbours are also unhappy with the growing aggressive posture of the Taliban leadership over security, border management, and the diversion of water resources.

Pakistan has to understand the Taliban mindset, which is at play in dealings with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, and see how it shapes its relationship with them and their approach to resolving bilateral disputes. The situation may not appear entirely gloomy, but it does require nuanced strategies to address the emerging challenges.

The first step is to engage with the Taliban through formal channels, whether the issues are related to terrorism threats, border security, trade and economy, or transnational mega projects. Verbal commitments and vague statements from the Taliban leadership will not be binding and will not change the dynamics. Taliban apologists in Pakistan were jubilant over a religious decree concerning jihad in foreign lands issued by the Taliban’s supreme leader. However, this has not changed anything; terrorist attacks are still rising in Pakistan. The martyrdom of nine soldiers in a suicide attack recently in Bannu District should serve as a reminder that security challenges cannot be dealt with through ambiguous religious decrees.

To anticipate future challenges, Pakistan should consider the Taliban’s relations with their other neighbours. Experts suggest that the Taliban could potentially spark a regional water conflict. The group’s approach to water resources has already escalated tensions with Iran and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan and Iran have a long-standing water dispute, exemplified by the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty of 1973, which was never fully ratified or implemented. Despite this, both countries maintained a somewhat balanced relationship through diplomacy. The Taliban’s accelerated dam projects have exacerbated border tensions with Iran. If water security issues are not managed carefully, they could expose deeper conflicts between Iran and the Taliban, such as ideological differences and anti-Shia sentiment.

By advancing long-delayed water projects, the Taliban aim to garner support for their regime.

Uzbekistan has maintained a pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, focusing on economic and trade cooperation. After Pakistan, it was the most optimistic country about the potential of the Taliban regime to facilitate connections with landlocked regions. However, this optimism was tempered when the Taliban initiated the Qosh Tepa Canal project to divert water from the Amu Darya, affecting multiple Central Asian states. This led to strained relations and even a temporary cut in electricity supplies from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, which were later restored. Despite these complexities, Uzbekistan has agreed with Afghanistan and Pakistan on a tri-nation railway. The $5 billion project aims to connect Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Kharlachi border crossing, passing through Termez in Uzbekistan and Logar province in Afghanistan. This railway is viewed as a significant step towards enhancing regional connectivity and trade.

The original plan was to build the railway line from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, and then to Torkham on the border with Pakistan. However, the route has been modified to go through Kurram instead. The reason for this was that the Taliban regime wants to develop the eastern and central provinces of Afghanistan, which are currently underdeveloped, and have a strong support base for their movement. China wants to formally bring Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative and tri-nation railway to make it a part of the BRI. However, the project is still in the early stages of planning. Pakistan’s economic situation may cause further delays in the implementation, but this also depends on the Taliban’s attitude on how it will deal with other disputes with Uzbekistan, mainly the Amu Darya diversion and the Taliban’s lack of water experts and experienced diplomats.

The Central Asian states, Pakistan and Afghanistan have bitter memories of many transnational energy and infrastructure projects that have not yet materialised — such as the CASA-100 electricity project connecting Central Asia to Pakistan, and the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline project. These initiatives were delayed mainly because of security concerns and complicated regional strategic scenarios. The Taliban can ensure the security of transnational projects, but it may not be enough to create a conducive strategic and political environment for such initiatives.

Pakistan also shares the Kabul river with Afghanistan, but they don’t have a water-sharing agreement. In the past, water security had created tensions between both countries, and now local Taliban officials have started threatening river diversion initiatives and dam construction. The Indus is Pakistan’s lifeline, and any diversion to its flow would be a nightmare for the country. Though this is a costly affair, and the Taliban regime cannot implement it all alone, or get any international assistance, they have revealed their intentions.

By advancing long-delayed water-related projects, the Taliban aim to garner support for their regime and tie it to a form of religiously infused Afghan nationalism. Afghanistan’s neighbours likely will not object to the Taliban’s ideologically driven nationalism, provided it does not harm their core interests.

Thus far, Afghanistan’s neighbours have been cautiously monitoring the Taliban’s actions. Despite multiple regional frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), they opt for bilateral resolutions. Pakistan’s efforts have yet to be successful, largely due to the country’s reliance on informal channels, which have proven ineffective in the past and offer little promise for the future.

China has been the most adept in its diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan. It has not only maintained a functional bilateral relationship with the Taliban, but also established trilateral and quadrilateral channels that include Pakistan and Uzbekistan. While the SCO serves China’s multilateral interests, the country remains cautious in expanding its economic ties with Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to re-evaluate its approach towards the Taliban, who have shown unpredictability in their diplomatic dealings. There is a noticeable assertiveness in the Taliban’s diplomatic expression, which raises concerns among its neighbours. Pakistan must plan its responses accordingly.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2023


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In major milestone, first-ever women’s cricket match held in Swat



After enduring several restrictions and roadblocks, girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat finally played the “first-ever” women’s cricket match in the Kabal tehsil on Tuesday.

Women cricketers from Kabal and Mingora tehsils participated in the match, which was played in the ground of the Government Girls Higher Secondary School Kabal.

During the 10-over thrilling contest, the Mingora women’s cricket team emerged as winners after beating Kabal by seven runs.

The game was attended by a large audience, which included female spectators, Babuzi Assistant Commissioner (AC) Luqman Khan, Kabal AC Junaid Khan, organiser and taekwondo champion Ayesha Ayaz, coach Ayaz Naik and others.

After the match, trophies, certificates and cash prizes were distributed among the players.

Speaking to, the women cricketers expressed their happiness and recalled how they had been barred from playing the sport.

Over the weekend, several clerics and a group of elders in the Charbagh tehsil had prevented the girls from playing cricket. They had called women’s participation in sports “immoral”.

After outcry from players and locals, Swat Deputy Commissioner Dr Qasim Ali Khan had instructed officials to find a “suitable location” for the match.

Sapna, one of the players, said: “I can’t find the words to describe how disheartened we felt when certain individuals prevented us from playing in Charbagh. It made us question whether we were not considered human beings and whether we had no rights.”

She said that she and her friends had been restless after that incident.

“But today, I am overjoyed that we were given the opportunity to play in front of a large audience and we emerged victorious,” she added.

Ayesha Ayaz, a 13-year-old budding taekwondo player who has secured two gold medals and one silver medal for Pakistan, stressed that the women of Swat possessed “remarkable talent” across various domains, including sports.

She advocated encouraging female participation in sports activities, asserting that they should not face obstacles but be granted opportunities to showcase their abilities and contribute to the nation’s prestige.

Naik, one of the match’s organisers, also expressed his gratitude to the district administration and organisers, hoping that they would continue promoting sports in the same way.

“This marks the initial step towards independent women’s sports activities, and we are committed to taking further substantial measures to offer increased opportunities to female players,” he said.


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Fiscal reforms critical for economic stability, sustainable growth in Pakistan: World Bank



Pakistan’s economy slowed sharply in fiscal year 2023 with real gross domestic product (GDP) estimated to have contracted by 0.6 per cent, according to the World Bank.

In a report released on Tuesday, titled ‘Pakistan Development Update: Restoring Fiscal Sustainability’, the global body said the decline in economic activity in the country reflects the cumulation of domestic and external shocks including the floods of 2022, government restrictions on imports and capital flows, domestic political uncertainty, surging world commodity prices, and tighter global financing.

The report said the previous fiscal year ended with significant pressure on domestic prices, fiscal and external accounts and exchange rate, and loss of investor confidence.

“The difficult economic conditions along with record high energy and food prices, lower incomes, and the loss of crops and livestock due to the 2022 floods, have significantly increased poverty.”

As per the report, the poverty headcount is estimated to have reached 39.4pc in fiscal year 2023, with 12.5 million more Pakistanis falling below the lower-middle income country poverty threshold ($3.65/day 2017 per capita) relative to 34.2pc in fiscal year 2022.

“Careful economic management and deep structural reforms will be required to ensure macroeconomic stability and growth,” said World Bank Country Director for Pakistan Najy Benhassine said in the report.

He added: “With inflation at record highs, rising electricity prices, severe climate shocks, and insufficient public resources to finance human development investments and climate adaptation, it is imperative that critical reforms are undertaken to build the fiscal space and public means to invest into inclusive, sustainable, and climate-resilient development.”

Without a sharp fiscal adjustment and decisive implementation of broad-based reforms, Pakistan’s economy will remain vulnerable to domestic and external shocks.

Predicated on the robust implementation of the IMF stand-by arrangement (SBA), new external financing and continued fiscal restraint, real GDP growth is projected to recover to 1.7pc in fiscal year 2024 and 2.4 per cent in fiscal year 2025, the report added.

It said economic growth was therefore expected to remain below potential over the medium term with some improvements in investment and exports.

According to the report, limited easing of import restrictions thanks to new external inflows will widen the current account deficit in the near term and weaker currency and higher domestic energy prices will maintain inflationary pressures.

“While the primary deficit is expected to narrow as fiscal consolidation takes hold, the overall fiscal deficit will decline only marginally due to substantially higher interest payments.”

The report underlined that the economic outlook was subject to extremely high downside risks, including liquidity challenges to service debt payments, ongoing political uncertainty, and external shocks.

“These macroeconomic challenges can be addressed through comprehensive fiscal reforms of tax policy, rationalisation of public expenditure, better management of public debt, and stronger inter-government coordination on fiscal issues,” said Aroub Farooq, economist at the World Bank, and author of the report.

To regain stability and establish a base for medium-term recovery, the report recommended reforms to drastically reduce tax exemptions and broaden the tax base through higher taxes on agriculture, property and retailers; improve the quality of public expenditure by reducing distortive subsidies, improving the financial viability of the energy sector, and increasing private participation in state-owned enterprises.

The Pakistan Development Update is a counterpart to the semiannual South Asia Development Update by the World Bank. This report assesses economic developments, prospects, and policy challenges within the South Asia region, the lender said.


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India tells Canada to withdraw 41 diplomats: report



India has told Canada that it must repatriate 41 diplomats by October 10, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday.

Ties between New Delhi and Ottawa have become seriously strained over Canadian suspicion that Indian government agents had a role in the June murder in Canada of a Sikh separatist leader and Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who India had labelled a “terrorist”.

Nijjar, 45, was the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey, British Columbia and advocated for the creation of a Sikh state known as Khalistan.

India has dismissed the allegation as absurd.

On September 21, Trudeau called on India to cooperate with an investigation into the murder of the separatist leader in British Columbia and said Canada would not release its evidence for their claims.

India suspended new visas for Canadians and asked Ottawa to reduce its diplomatic presence in the country on the same day.

Last week, the Indian foreign minister spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan about Canadian allegations of New Delhi’s possible involvement killing of the separatist leader in Canada.

Jaishankar said that New Delhi had told Canada it was open to looking into any “specific” or “relevant” information it provides on the killing.

Trudeau, who is yet to publicly share any evidence, said he has shared the “credible allegations” with India “many weeks ago”.

The Financial Times, citing people familiar with the Indian demand, said India had threatened to revoke the diplomatic immunity of those diplomats told to leave who remained after October 10.

Canada has 62 diplomats in India and India had said that the total should be reduced by 41, the newspaper said.

The Indian and Canadian foreign ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier there was a “climate of violence” and an “atmosphere of intimidation” against Indian diplomats in Canada, where the presence of Sikh separatist groups has frustrated New Delhi.


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