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Meet Europe’s unexpected new best friend.
As the continent struggles to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan and prevent a potential wave of refugees on its borders, Europe reaches out to Pakistan – long seen as a pariah state – for help with both.
In just one week, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom all visited Islamabad. They promised quick cash to Pakistani coffers for assistance in the humanitarian crisis next door and praised the country for its help in evacuating thousands of diplomatic staff and Afghan workers from Kabul.
German Ambassador to Pakistan Bernhard Schlagheck said it would not have been possible to fly German and Dutch staff out without the assistance of Islamabad, while Pakistan also received friendly calls from EU Council President Charles Michel, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Austrians, and Slovenes, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
This newfound love for Pakistan is a significant shift in the diplomatic tide of this spring, when the EU only had eyes for Pakistan’s arch-enemy India. In April, the EU committed to an Indo-Pacific strategy to see increased European cooperation with India against (Pakistan’s allies) China. In May, Brussels also opened free trade negotiations with New Delhi.
The Taliban’s return to Kabul now gives Pakistan an excellent opportunity to put itself back in the game. It uses the attention to try to re-brand its image internationally and exploit its position as the main destination for Afghan refugees to demand concessions for its own priorities such as economic aid, trade incentives, freer travel to Europe and diplomatic support to the disputed region of Kashmir.
The overtures come at a crucial time as both Pakistan and Europe are struggling with the US withdrawal from the region. Washington has long been Pakistan’s main supplier of weapons and aid, seeking Pakistan’s assistance in Afghanistan, but as that relationship disappeared – especially since Pakistan provided assistance to the Afghan Taliban, even though the group targeted US forces – Islamabad is seeking to invest in other relations. Europe, which was caught flat-footed by the US 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 created for its human rights record and its dual behavior in Afghanistan, where it simultaneously supported both NATO and the Taliban forces. Although the EU is an important trading partner for Pakistan, the South Asian country is far 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 stressed its role in helping European and foreign officials leave Kabul, including 294 Dutch nationals, 201 Belgians, 216 Italians, and 273 today. In addition, Pakistan is too helps to evacuate more than 4,000 Afghan nationals working 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 though most countries struggled to leave the country.
“We have a huge admiration and respect for Pakistan and we would like to reiterate our gratitude,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag. said at a press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday.
The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was in the capital the next day, announced that Britain was sending teams to Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, to help process arrivals from Afghanistan and repatriate them to Britain. He also announced that Britain would immediately send 30 million to Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan’s chief among them, to help them deal with the humanitarian crisis.
“Pakistan is an important partner for Britain,” Raab said.
In the long run, Europe believes that Pakistan is crucial in averting a new wave of refugees. Hosting refugees is a toxic problem in Europe, and the continent is eager to avoid the violence it experienced during the last influx that arrived at Europe’s borders in 2015 and 2016. Austria promised not to accept Afghan refugees, after the Taliban took over the country this month, and French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe “must anticipate and protect ourselves from large irregular migration flows that would endanger those who use them and feed human trafficking of all kinds.”
This is where they seek Pakistan’s help. The country already hosts millions of Afghan refugees, and Europe hopes that with the right incentives it would host a few more.
Only a few months ago, when the foreign ministers of the two countries met, Germany pointed out Pakistan’s depressed economic state, its oppressive blasphemy laws and the lack of protection of minorities.
Last weekend, Foreign Minister Heiko Maa’s tone markedly different“As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Pakistan in particular is feeling the effects of the crisis. Germany will not abandon the region. In addition to our economic commitment, we will continue concrete projects, for example in the field of border management.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Kaag said in Islamabad: “We are aware and grateful for the many years of host role Pakistan has played for the refugees over the years.”
“We will explore ways in which we can help Pakistan in its role as a host country for refugees and want to invest and make use of the improved climate to attract companies and invest in Pakistan itself.”
A simple advantage
Pakistan, aware of its influence, is trying to push for a host of trade and economic perks in addition to trying to rebrand.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi pressured Raab to remove Pakistan from the country’s “red list”, which bans travel to Britain for countries where it considers coronavirus to be too serious. Raab confirmed that Pakistani and British officials met on Monday to discuss it. It also called on Raab to support the removal of Pakistan from the “gray list” of an international initiative to combat money laundering and terrorism, known as the Financial Action Task Force, which, apart from being a stain on its international reputation, makes it harder for Pakistan gaining access to international credit.
Islamabad is also trying to convince EU countries to keep a trade regime called GSP +, which allows Pakistan to export goods to Europe at low or zero tariffs. The scheme is based on Pakistan improving its human rights record, including child labor, freedom of the press and religious freedoms, but human rights groups have documented a deteriorating prospects.
And that is forcing Europe to once again allow its national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines, to fly to the block. The regulators banned PIA from flying to Europe since June last year when it emerged that hundreds of pilots working for the airline may have obtained fake licenses.
All this is in addition to asking for lots of financial assistance to host incoming refugees, as many European countries have duly promised, and diplomatic support to Kashmir, a region that both Pakistan and India claim to be their own.
Or else …
It is likely that Pakistan will make a tough trade. After seeing how Turkey negotiated its agreement to prevent asylum seekers from entering Europe, Pakistan is pursuing a similar strategy.
“If the refugees come to Pakistan, they will have an effect on us,” Pakistani Ambassador to the EU Zaheer Aslam Janjua told POLITICO last month. “And then they may not stop there, and they can also move on to other countries. It is up to the other countries to make their efforts.”
Since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has been instrumental in securing diplomatic, trade, and logistical relations between Afghanistan and the rest of the world. With Afghanistan now in the hands of the Taliban, a group of Pakistan knows nothing, it is likely that any country wishing to trade with them will need Pakistani help.
Pakistan hopes for the West’s continued commitment – and warned of the consequences if it does not.
“Abandonment would be dangerous and no one will win. And no one can predict the consequences of that,” Qureshi said.
It was unclear whether he was referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
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