Pakistan’s foreign minister says UK must do more to engage Afghan Taliban to avert ‘anarchy, chaos’

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Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi  (Bel Trew)
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi (Bel Trew)

The UK should “accept the new reality” in Afghanistan and deliver immediate aid to the Taliban-run country, Pakistan’s foreign minister has urged, warning that isolating the Taliban authorities would lead to economic collapse, “anarchy”, and “chaos”.

Speaking to The Independent, Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the UK and its western allies were not doing enough to engage with the Taliban administration or to avert a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, and urged the west to provide supplies with “no political conditions attached”.

Last week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would not recognise the new militant cabinet but that he “did see the need to be able to have direct engagement”, and admitted that the UK should “adjust”.

On Sunday, Mr Qureshi said that concrete steps now needed to be taken, including sending food and medical supplies to the war-ravaged country. He warned that Pakistan would not be willing to take in any more Afghan refugees as it is already hosting several million from decades of past conflicts.

My message [to the UK] is that there is a new reality in Afghanistan. Accept the new reality and let us work to achieve our objectives

Shah Mahmood Quereshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister

Afghanistan is almost entirely reliant on international donations, which have abruptly halted since the Taliban takeover. The situation is so grave that the United Nations warned on Monday that the country was on the verge of collapse, and that food supplies could run out by the end of this month. The World Food Programme said 14 million people were on the brink of starvation.

“My message [to the UK] is that there is a new reality in Afghanistan. Accept the new reality and let us work to achieve our objectives,” Mr Qureshi, who has twice been Pakistan’s foreign minister, told The Independent in Islamabad.

“Isolation will not help. It will lead to a humanitarian crisis, it will lead to an economic collapse, and it will create space for elements who have not been helpful for you, me or anyone.

“Anarchy, chaos will facilitate their presence there. Don’t do that. Engagement, we feel, is a better option. If [the Taliban] are saying positive things, nudge them in that direction. Do not push them into a corner.”

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres talks to the media about the crisis in Afghanistan (EPA)
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres talks to the media about the crisis in Afghanistan (EPA)

One of the first steps, he said, was delivering immediate aid. “There should be no strings attached, there should be no political conditions attached to humanitarian assistance,” the top diplomat added.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s to 2001 with an iron fist, and according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, which saw minority groups persecuted and women barred from education and work. They were toppled in an invasion led by the United States, which accused them of sheltering the militants who had planned and carried out the 9/11 terror attacks.

Twenty years on, they stormed back to power in a lightning advance amid the chaotic withdrawal of US-led allied forces last month. After promising an inclusive government, they formed a new interim cabinet made up exclusively of Taliban figures, including those who are on UN blacklists or wanted by the FBI.

Meanwhile Pakistan, which shares a 2,500km-long border as well as cultural, ethnic and religious ties with Afghanistan, is positioning itself as a potentially powerful regional mediator.

The country of more than 215 million people (many of whom have families on both sides of the border) had a rocky relationship with the previous Afghan administration, which was led by Ashraf Ghani, and sees the rapid collapse of his government and the country’s security forces as vindication of its past warnings.

Pakistan has faced criticism for its deep ties with the Taliban, and has been accused of supporting the group as it battled the US-backed government in Kabul for 20 years. Lately, its critics have alleged that it actively facilitated the Taliban’s recent rapid rise to power, a point that Mr Qureshi vehemently dismissed as “absurd”, “lies” and “propaganda”.

Pakistan has been criticised for facilitating the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power (EPA)
Pakistan has been criticised for facilitating the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power (EPA)

In statements made after The Independent interviewed the foreign minister, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said late on Monday that the US was currently reassessing its relationship with Pakistan, warning that some of the country’s interests were “in conflict” with those of the US.

But he added that Islamabad had cooperated with Washington on counterterrorism.

Islamabad is fighting a major domestic security threat in the form of local Taliban offshoot the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the TTP, as well as al-Qaeda and factions of Isis, complicating its relationship with the new administration next door. Mr Qureshi told The Independent that Pakistan had received verbal assurances from the Afghan Taliban that they would not allow any group to stage terror attacks on Pakistan from Afghanistan, but he added that Islamabad was waiting to see “if they act on what they’ve said”.

And so Pakistan has not formally recognised the new Taliban cabinet, but senior Pakistani officials, including the country’s spy chief, have visited Kabul, where Pakistan’s embassy remains open providing a potential gateway into and out of the country.

Pakistan’s foreign minister said he had received assurances from the Afghan Taliban that they would not stage terror attacks on Pakistan from Afghanistan (Bel Trew)
Pakistan’s foreign minister said he had received assurances from the Afghan Taliban that they would not stage terror attacks on Pakistan from Afghanistan (Bel Trew)

In the days before the full withdrawal, western forces scrambled to evacuate their citizens, along with at-risk Afghans who had worked with them, via Kabul airport. Hundreds of British nationals and thousands of eligible Afghans were left behind in the chaos.

Mr Raab spoke last week about the need to secure safe passage for those who did not make it out. The Independent met a British taxi driver from Wembley at the Afghan border last week, who said that after being abandoned in Kabul he had eventually managed to leave with his family via the treacherous land route to Pakistan.

Mr Qureshi said Pakistan would continue to facilitate the departure of those with valid documents who wished to exit Afghanistan via Pakistan, but drew the line at allowing an influx of refugees. He also rejected the notion of building refugee camps or resettlement processing facilities on Pakistani soil, in light of reports that the UN was exploring the idea.

At an aid conference in Geneva on Monday, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, accused the Taliban of breaking promises by once more ordering women to stay at home rather than go to work, keeping teenage girls out of school, and persecuting former opponents.

There have also been well-documented incidents of journalists and women being beaten and detained during anti-Taliban rallies. Aside from safety worries, there are mounting concerns that soaring hunger and poverty levels might drive people to try to flee the country.

Thousands of people, including former members of the security forces alongside the country’s most impoverished, have already gathered on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan. The Independent spoke to members of the persecuted Hazara community, which is majority Shia, who had managed to cross into Pakistan where they hoped to seek asylum.

Afghan people wait at the Torkham border crossing to enter Pakistan (Anadolu via Getty)
Afghan people wait at the Torkham border crossing to enter Pakistan (Anadolu via Getty)

Mr Qureshi claimed there had been “no rush” on Pakistan’s borders ,and said there was no need for people to flee Afghanistan as he said the country was “peaceful and stable”. He cited Taliban statements on a general amnesty, as well as the group’s promises not to prohibit women from going to school, university or work, as reasons why people should stay put.

“We have our limitations. [Pakistan has] been hosting now over 3 million, almost close to 4 million refugees for so many decades without any international help or assistance. We do not have the capacity to absorb more, honestly,” he told The Independent.

“Our preference is that [Afghans] stay within Afghanistan and they are provided security and safety within Afghanistan.

“As things stand at the moment, I see no reason why they can’t stay in Afghanistan.”

He added that any processing facility where Afghan citizens can apply for asylum should be in Afghanistan. “It has to be over there – that is where they belong, that is their country,” he added.

Let it evolve. Judge them not by European standards; judge them in line with their traditions and their culture

Shah Mahmood Quereshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister

He did say that the Pakistani authorities would consider “on merit” formal requests from the UK for British representation in their embassy in Kabul to help with applications – an idea senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood told The Independent the government should pursue with its allies, such as Qatar and Turkey.

But Mr Qureshi maintained that the behaviour of the new Taliban leadership was “quite distinct and different” from that seen in the 1990s, saying that, for example, protests in Kabul had “by and large been tolerated”.

“These are initial signs which are not discouraging. Let’s see if this is the direction that they follow,” he concluded.

“Let it evolve. Judge them not by European standards; judge them in line with their traditions and their culture,” he implored the west.

“Do not repeat [the mistakes of the] past. Let’s learn from them and not repeat them.”

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