Amb. (R) Asif Durrani

04th Dec, 2022. 09:10 am

Are Taliban ready to do business with women?

Minister of State Hina Rabbani Khar’s one-day visit to Kabul has attracted international media attention. Her demeanour must have been shocking for the Taliban hosts as she descended from the aircraft at the Kabul airport and during her meetings with the Taliban dignitaries. Symbolically, Ms Khar’s visit conveyed Pakistan’s message that statecraft is not a unisex affair; a state has to honour the rights and privileges of its citizens and that women are equally capable of running the affairs of the state.

In Kabul, the Minister of State held meetings with Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, Minister for Mines and Petroleum Shahabuddin Delawar, and Commerce Minister of the Interim Afghan Government, Haji Nooruddin Azizi. This was the first visit of any Pakistani minister after the Shahbaz Sharif government came into power.

The visit was nuanced in many ways. A Foreign Office press release stated that Ms Khar “underscored the imperatives for the international community to practically engage with the Interim Afghan Government to help Afghanistan address the dire humanitarian situation and the challenges of reconstruction and socio-economic development.” She also stressed that the “unfreezing of Afghanistan’s financial assets would contribute to this end.”

On the bilateral plane, cooperation in education, health, trade & investment, regional connectivity, people-to-people contacts and socio-economic projects were discussed.

From a connectivity perspective, the two sides also emphasised the importance of Afghanistan as a land bridge between Central Asia and South Asia and its pivotal role in promoting regional connectivity, including through transportation links and mega energy projects such as TAPI and CASA-1000. There are indications that the Taliban government is inclined to rejuvenate these half-dead projects and improve infrastructure that can connect Pakistan with the Central Asian states. It would not only add revenues to the Taliban coffers, but also generate economic activity, which Pakistan has been pleading since last year under the rubric of ‘geoeconomics’. Since Afghanistan, under the Taliban, witnesses comparative peace, it may also give confidence to investors to come forward and complete the TAPI and CASA-1000 projects—a move that may be a prelude to economically integrating the region.


There is no doubt that economically South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. India is the largest member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC); it neighbours all other member states while other members do not have borders. The geographical advantage enjoyed by India should have yielded positive energy through well-integrated connectivity. However, this has been a pipedream as hegemony over its neighbours has always been part of Indian geopolitics, which turned out to be a zero-sum game for the region. One wonders whether India would be ready to honour its commitment to the TAPI project or if it would back out as it did with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

There is a positive development, however. While Afghanistan is limping back to normalcy, Pakistan’s trade with the Central Asia states via Afghanistan in 2021 has already reached $ 202 million, an increase of 70 percent compared to the previous year. Similarly, trade with Afghanistan has also picked up; during the last year, the trade has reached $ 1.5 billion, with the balance of trade in Afghanistan’s favour. Afghan exports were registered at $ 800 million compared to $ 700 million in imports from that country. The increase in the Afghan trade is primarily attributed to the import of Afghan coal to Pakistan due to the rise in the price of the commodity in South Africa and Indonesia.

The US decision to unfreeze at least $ 3.5 billion to be handled by the Swiss Bank of International Settlements and have the money distributed under a third-party monitoring system may be a precursor to doing business with the Taliban regime. The Taliban, after being embarrassed due to the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, seem more conscious of addressing the American concerns regarding the regrouping of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, it will take a while before the Biden administration may show the inclination to engage the Taliban regime. The Taliban must admit that their capacity to neutralise ISIS and Al-Qaeda is still limited and would require international assistance. How soon they seek such help from the US or other sources would pave the way for Afghanistan’s return to normalcy.

Another important development that attracted the attention of the Afghan watchers was the luncheon meeting of the Minister of State with the representatives of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce. During the meeting, she emphasised the “important role of women in Afghan society and expressed Pakistan’s keen desire to strengthen linkages between women entrepreneurs of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” She announced that “Pakistan would give special preference to import of products produced by businesses run by Afghan women.” It was a pleasant surprise that many Afghan businesswomen joined Ms Khar to discuss business with a Pakistani minister. Whether it was a gesture from the Taliban to show the international community that they were not opposed to women running their businesses is unclear. However, given the Taliban’s record of harsh treatment of women, allowing businesswomen to interact with the globe-trotting Pakistani woman minister reflects a change in the Taliban’s attitude, which is a positive development.

From the bilateral perspective, Pakistan’s concerns regarding Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ‘s attacks on Pakistan security forces along the border while taking shelter in Afghanistan have become serious. They may have severe ramifications if the Afghan Taliban continue to dilly-dally about their Pakistani ideological cousins. Meanwhile, the TTP’s announcement of ending the ceasefire on the eve of Ms Khar’s visit does not augur well for the reconciliatory efforts undertaken with the good offices of the Afghan Taliban.

This year, the TTP’s attacks increased and caused 450 deaths, mainly to the security forces. The TTP’s new announcement may spell death and destruction in the border areas and beyond. Therefore, the Pakistani authorities will have to take concrete steps to neutralise the activities of the TTP. The TTP deserves no leniency unless it surrenders arms unconditionally. The right to use coercive power lies only with the state; no political or religious group could be allowed to take up arms. A massive campaign to expose the true face of the TTP and mass mobilisation, which happened a few weeks ago in Swat and Malakand, can effectively answer religious bigotry.



The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Iran and UAE and is currently the Senior Research Fellow at IPRI