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Meet Europe’s unexpected new best friend.
As the Continent scrambles to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan and prevent a potential wave of refugees on its borders, Europe is reaching out to Pakistan — long seen as a pariah state — for help with both.
In only one week, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. all visited Islamabad. They made promises of prompt cash to Pakistani coffers for its assistance in the humanitarian crisis next door, and showered praise on the country for its help evacuating thousands of diplomatic staff and Afghan workers from Kabul.
Germany’s Ambassador to Pakistan Bernhard Schlagheck said it would not have been possible to fly out German and Dutch staff without Islamabad’s assistance, while Pakistan also received friendly calls from EU Council President Charles Michel, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the Austrians, and the Slovenes, who currently hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.
This newfound affection for Pakistan is a significant shift in the diplomatic tides from this spring when the EU had eyes only for Pakistan’s arch-enemy India. In April, the EU committed to an Indo-Pacific strategy that is meant to see increased European cooperation with India against (Pakistan’s ally) China. In May, Brussels also launched free-trade talks with New Delhi.
The Taliban’s return in Kabul now gives Pakistan a prime opportunity to put itself back in the game. It is using the attention to try to rebrand its image internationally, and leverage its position as the main destination for Afghan refugees to exact concessions for its own priorities like economic aid, trade incentives, freer travel to Europe, and diplomatic support for the disputed region of Kashmir.
The overtures come at a crucial time, as both Pakistan and Europe are contending with the U.S.’s retreat from the region. Washington has long been Pakistan’s chief supplier of arms and aid as it sought Pakistan’s help in Afghanistan, but as that relationship soured — especially as Pakistan provided aid to the Afghan Taliban even as the group targeted U.S. forces — Islamabad is looking to invest in other relationships. Europe, which was caught flat-footed by the U.S.’s decision to withdraw, must now secure its own interests in the region without American help.
Friends in need
Before the Afghan crisis, Pakistan was not popular in Brussels. The conservative Islamic country was routinely bashed for its human rights record and its duplicitous conduct in Afghanistan, where it simultaneously supported both NATO and the Taliban forces. While the EU is a major trading partner for Pakistan, the South Asian country is way down the EU’s priority list.
But all that has changed since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last month, leaving European countries desperate to repatriate their citizens.
Islamabad has underlined its role in helping European and foreign officials leave Kabul, including 294 Dutch citizens, 201 Belgians, 216 Italians, and 273 Danes. In addition, Pakistan is also helping evacuate more than 4,000 Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. and allied forces in Kabul. The country was able to do so because of its strong ties to the Taliban, which allowed it to continue flights and keep its embassy open, even as most countries were scrambling to leave the country.
“We have tremendous admiration and respect for Pakistan and we would like to reiterate our gratitude,” Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said at a press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was in the capital the next day, announced that the U.K. was sending teams to Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, to help process arrivals from Afghanistan and repatriate them to the U.K. He also announced that the U.K. was immediately sending £30 million to Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan chief among them, to help them deal with the humanitarian crisis.
“Pakistan is a vital partner for the U.K.” Raab said.
In the long term, Europe believes Pakistan is crucial in averting a new wave of refugees. Hosting refugees is a toxic issue in Europe, and the Continent is keen to avoid the acrimony it experienced over the last influx that arrived on Europe’s borders in 2015 and 2016. Austria vowed not to take in any Afghan refugees after the Taliban took over the country this month, and French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe “must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds.”
That’s where they’re seeking Pakistan’s help. The country already hosts millions of Afghan refugees, and Europe is hoping that with the right incentives, it would host a few more.
Only a few months ago, when the two countries’ foreign ministers met, Germany pointed out Pakistan’s depressed economic state, its repressive blasphemy laws and the lack of protection for minorities.
Last weekend, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s tone was markedly different: “As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Pakistan in particular is feeling the effects of the crisis. Germany won’t abandon the region. In addition to our financial commitment, we will continue concrete projects, such as in border management.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Kaag said in Islamabad: “We’re mindful and grateful for the longstanding hosting role Pakistan has played for the refugees over the years.”
“We will explore ways in which we can assist Pakistan in its role as a hosting nation to refugees and wanting to invest and make use of the improving climate to attract business and invest in Pakistan itself.”
A simple favor
Aware of its leverage, Pakistan is trying to push for a host of trade and economic perks in addition to trying to rebrand.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi pushed Raab to take Pakistan off the country’s “red list,” which bans travel to the U.K. for countries where it deems the coronavirus is too severe. Raab confirmed that Pakistani and British officials are meeting on Monday to discuss it. It also asked Raab to support removing Pakistan from the “grey list” of an international anti-money laundering and terrorist financing initiative, known as the Financial Action Task Force, which, apart from being a stain on its international reputation, makes it harder for Pakistan to access international credit.
Islamabad is also trying to convince EU countries to keep a trade scheme called the GSP+, which allows Pakistan to export goods to Europe at low or zero tariffs. The scheme is predicated on Pakistan improving its human rights record, including child labor, freedom of the press and religious freedoms, but human rights groups have documented a worsening outlook.
And it’s pushing Europe to once again allow its national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines, to fly to the bloc. Regulators banned PIA from flying to Europe since June last year when it emerged that hundreds of pilots working for the airline may have gotten fake licenses.
All that’s in addition to asking for oodles of economic aid to host incoming refugees, which many European countries have duly promised, and diplomatic support for Kashmir, a region that both Pakistan and India claim as their own.
Or else …
It’s likely that Pakistan will drive a hard bargain. Having seen how Turkey negotiated its deal to keep asylum seekers from entering Europe, Pakistan is pursuing a similar strategy.
“If the refugees come to Pakistan, they will have an effect on us,” Pakistan’s Ambassador to the EU Zaheer Aslam Janjua told POLITICO last month. “And then they may not stop there, and they may move on to other countries as well. It is for the other countries to do their bit.”
Since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has been crucial to ensuring diplomatic, trade and logistical links between Afghanistan and the rest of the world. With Afghanistan now in the hands of the Taliban, a group Pakistan knows intimately, it’s likely that any country wanting to do business with them will need Pakistan’s help.
Pakistan is hoping for the West’s continued engagement — and warned of the consequences if it doesn’t.
“Abandonment would be dangerous, and nobody will gain from that. And nobody can predict the consequences of that,” Qureshi said.
It was unclear if he was referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
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