By Abdul Basit, Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
06 July 2021
As the US is withdrawing, Afghanistan finds itself at history’s crossroads and it seems the history will repeat itself, yet again. The Taliban’s rapid territorial gains, amid the deadlocked peace process and the hasty US retreat, have raised the specter of Afghanistan’s military takeover by the insurgent group. While the US intervention in Afghanistan underscored the hubris of its military might, the withdrawal marks the twilight zone of its superpower status. Though it is too shallow to view the Afghan conflict through the victory-defeat lens, it is a fact that the US has lost the war in Afghanistan to what the Bush administration called a “rag-tag militia” in 2001.
The US unilateralism and the tendency to view Afghanistan only through the narrow prism of counterterrorism has left a trail of unmitigated disaster in the war-torn country. Arguably, the US military presence and its withdrawal were the most critical factors which could have shaped the Taliban’s strategic calculus to reach a political compromise with Kabul. Detaching the intra-Afghan peace process from the US-Taliban deal and the subsequent unconditional withdrawal announcement by the Biden administration have squandered even the slim chances of the Afghan peace process’s success.
Pakistan always advocated for an orderly and responsible US withdrawal, ensuring a politically negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Trump and Biden administrations unilateral and uncoordinated decisions have left regional countries like Pakistan in a bind to fend for themselves. Given this, the US cannot blame or scapegoat Pakistan for its policy failures and inconsistencies in Afghanistan.
Since the start of the current phase of the Afghan conflict, Pakistan urged the US to focus on Al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of the horrendous 9/11 attack, and incorporate the Afghan Taliban into Afghanistan’s political system to ensure long-term peace and stability. However, during the 2001 Bonn Conference, Pakistan’s inputs were ignored and what has followed in Afghanistan is a trail of endless chaos.
Keeping in view the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan has articulated its policy position both at the regional and national levels. During the Extended Troika’s April meeting, comprising of Pakistan, Russia, China and the US, Islamabad unequivocally maintained that the reconstitution of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan by the Taliban is a redline. More recently, during the parliament’s in-camera briefing, Pakistan’s political and military leadership has stated that Pakistan has no favourites in Afghanistan. It will work with any future government that will have the support of the Afghan people. In his recent New York Times’ interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Pakistan does not support the Taliban’s military takeover because it will fuel more conflict instead of bringing peace.
Given geographical proximity, cultural, historical and ethnic linkages, Pakistan will be the most directly affected country by the civil war in Afghanistan. Islamabad will potentially incur tremendous humanitarian, economic security and political costs if Afghanistan descended into chaos. This could include an inflow of at least one million conflict displaced refugees, who may carry additional risks of the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-state militant infiltrators. Pakistan will try to accommodate these refugees on the Afghan side of the border. Likewise, cross-border terrorist attacks from Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban and Baloch militant factions can increase. Though Pakistan has fenced a significant portion of its border with Afghanistan, it is a necessary, not sufficient condition to minimise the blowback of the Afghan civil war. Only a politically negotiated settlement holds the key to sustaining peace in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
The civil war in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s primary concern and it is still working with regional and international partners to avert this worst-case scenario. After the US withdrawal, the role of regional actors like China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan has increased manifold. Pakistan believes it is still not too late to revive the moribund peace process to find a political solution.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan will also adversely affect Pakistan’s ties with the US. Pakistan’s refusal to give basing rights to the US for surveillance in Afghanistan and offshore counterterrorism operations has already created tensions with Washington. Despite complying with 26 of the Financial Action Task Force’s 27 action items, the global financial watchdog retained Pakistan’s “gray-list” status during its June 20-25 meeting. Pakistan believes the decision is linked to geopolitics linked to Afghanistan rather than pure technical compliance. More recently, the US placed Pakistan on its Child Soldiers Prevention Act list, which can restrict Washington’s security assistance to Islamabad and commercial licensing of military equipment.
Quite to the contrary, Pakistan expected an acknowledgement of its sacrifices in the war against terrorism and diplomatic efforts to facilitate the peace process. Pakistan’s role was central in the 2020 US-Taliban deal. Since 2001, Pakistan has lost around 70,000 people and incurred economic losses of $ 123 billion while fighting terrorism. However, it seems that Pakistan is not only at the receiving end of US policy failures but facing prospective sanctions as well.
Finally, Pakistan does not foresee any Indian role in the Afghan peace process. However, the Indian engagement with any Afghan government formed after the negotiations would be a bilateral matter. Pakistan’s foremost apprehension is to make sure that the Afghan soil is not used for subversive activities against it.
Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s best interest as it is consistent with its new vision of pivoting to geoeconomics from geopolitics. An Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours will potentially pave the way for its inclusion in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which will be a value addition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Given its location at South and Central Asian regions intersection, a peaceful Afghanistan can become a roundabout of regional connectivity, a transit trade hub, and a route of mega electricity projects, such as CASA-1000, and gas pipelines. Hence, irrespective of the outcomes, the efforts for peace should not be abandoned.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the institute’s policy.