After two decades of a costly and exhausting war effort, the US troops are now leaving Afghanistan with an unclear future, just as the strategists in Islamabad had been assessing all these times. As I write these lines, about 90 percent of the US troops have been evacuated from Afghanistan and the biggest US base in the impossible terrains, i.e, Bagram Airbase is now devoid of US personnel. With this emerging situation, the clouds of despondency have started to hover over Afghanistan as to what might happen to the already war-torn Afghanistan in the coming days. The Taliban are surging and capturing territories after territories with no real resistance from the Afghan National Army, signifying that the Kabul government could fall much earlier than expected.
The latest challenge to Pakistan could be posed by the aggravation of situation in Afghanistan, especially if a civil war ensues between the two or more power factions. In case of a civil war, huge loss of lives and property is expected which is why efforts to eschew such a disaster are on the way with Pakistan trying hard to make the stakeholders reach a political settlement and a power formula for Afghanistan. The biggest challenge for Pakistan, if to Afghanistan’s misfortune a settlement is not reached, would be in the form of a refugee influx. Pakistan, after winning a bloody war on terror that raged for more than a decade, does not appear to be in a position to take more Afghan refugees when it already has more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees. Should the border be closed in case of a civil war or should the refugees be allowed in by allocating confined territory in the form of camps just like Iran did. None of the options are devoid of huge challenges and complexities.
Regardless of a civil war or a political settlement in Afghanistan, the biggest loser in the entire episode since the announcement of US troop withdrawal is India. For years India has seen Afghanistan as a land of opportunity for the sake of countering Pakistan via its nefarious “double-squeeze” strategy, part of its defensive offence grand strategic vision chalked out by India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Its relations with the Kabul government in Afghanistan thrived majorly because the Kabul government supported by the US, was never at good terms with Pakistan, which never in real terms considered the Kabul government the real legitimate government of the country. Despite Pakistan’s recognition of the Afghanistan government in Kabul, it continued to believe that Kabul setup did not hold much power and was only in place because of the American support. Pakistan also believed that without American support that was going to wither sooner or later, the Kabul setup would fall and those with the real control on ground, i.e. the Taliban would come to power.
On the contrary, India continued to believe that the US sponsored democratic Kabul setup would continue to thrive and the Taliban would be defeated by the US and allied forces. For this reason, India continued to invest in the Kabul government, building close and warm ties, pouring in billions of dollars in investments and chalking out joint geo-strategic visions. By now, India has invested at least $3 billion just in development assistance while the total investment might be above $10 billion. After such huge investments, despite odds going against the plans, India did not turn back on its commitment to the Kabul government, also because only under such a government setup, could the defensive offense strategy be executed. Any other government setup, be it the Taliban or a coalition government with all stake-holders would not allow India to operate against Pakistan.
The biggest blow has come to India today as its Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that the Indian Consulate in Kandahar had been evacuated and all 50 Indian diplomats were called back to India amid fear of the Taliban advance. Indian consulates in Afghanistan, have been reported to have involved in anti-Pakistan territories. Christine Fair, a staunch and hardliner critic of Pakistan army and Pakistan’s policies in South Asia, had also stated that the Indian consulates in Afghanistan were not just assisting in “issuing visas” and were involved in other activities too. The former Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had also stated that India uses “terrorism” to respond to “Pakistani terrorism”. Hence, the evacuation of the Kandahar consulate is a major indicator of India’s sinking investment in Afghanistan, both on economic and strategic terms.
The Indian government has been reported to have informally engaged with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, out of its national security concerns. India has, so far, never accepted the Taliban as a part of solution in the future of Afghanistan but its quiet and silent diplomatic engagement with the Taliban shows that strategists in New Delhi have been compelled to adopt to a more realistic Afghan policy which does call for engagement with the Taliban, who are in reality a major stake-holder in the Afghanistan equation. Via such an engagement, India would look forward to create some ties with the Taliban so that its security concerns in Kashmir are met and that the Taliban would be of some help, if they prevail in the future Afghanistan’s government setup,
The US attitude towards what is going on in Afghanistan, is now completely self-centered with only one objective its super keen to achieve right now, i.e. safe and sound withdrawal of every single American troop serving on Afghan soil. After the rise of Biden administration to power, it was a hot debate whether Biden would continue Trump’s policy of putting a complete end to US military engagement in Afghanistan as soon as possible or would he chalk out a different plan. The US president Biden announced that by September 11, 2021, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be completed, a date which has now been changed to August 30, 2021 due to latest developments. Another important factor to note here is that Pakistani Prime Minister refused to talk to the US Secretary of State and the Prime Minister Office in Pakistan had demanded US to engage with Pakistan in line with the diplomatic protocols, meaning that only the head of government in US, i.e. Joe Biden could have a direct telephone call with the head of government in Pakistan. Following Pakistan’s cold attitude, the US administration did not engage with Pakistan at the top level and the US president did not call the Pakistani PM.
Pakistan’s Role Now
Pakistan is a staunch advocate of reaching a political settlement to the Afghan problem by engaging all stake-holders including the Taliban. Pakistan has had a complex role with the Taliban and the relations with the Afghan group took a nose-dive after 9/11 when the Islamic Republic became a partner in the US “War on Terror” in Afghanistan by providing logistic supports via both GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) and (ALOC) Aerial Lines of Communication. The Taliban were very unhappy with the Pakistani decision but the connections between Pakistan and the Taliban continued nevertheless.
When Imran Khan’s government came into power corridors back in 2018, Pakistan adopted a firm stance on Afghanistan’s political settlement quite candidly and bluntly. Pakistan stated that it wanted peaceful settlement of Afghan problem with all stake-holders engaged, including the Taliban. Both Qatar and Pakistan continued their efforts for a peaceful reconciliation and managed to bring Taliban on the table to negotiate with the US. However the important factor to note here is that Pakistan’s control of the situation in Afghanistan is a bit more over-rated. In reality, Pakistan is not under control of the situation right now, and all the power it holds with respect to the Taliban is that it might convince them.
Having understood Pakistan’s leverage, it must be known that Pakistan can act nothing more than a facilitator in Afghanistan Peace process. It cannot guarantee, in any manner, the settlement or peace in Afghanistan, simply because the Taliban in Afghanistan are a completely independent group who are capable of taking their own decisions and charting out their own course. They can be convinced but cannot be forced to take certain actions. Pakistan back in 1990s had willed to convince Taliban to accept a colation government with other stakeholders like Hekmatyar and Dostum on board but had failed. Similarly, Pakistan had failed to convince Taliban to handover Bin Laden to US after 9/11. Today, Pakistan is striving hard to avoid a civil war in Afghanistan because the immediate spillover of a civil war is Pakistan itself, which is struggling to revive itself after an excruciating counter-terrorism war effort against the TTP and splinter groups.
In a Nutshell
The situation in Afghanistan is quickly deteriorating as the US withdrawal after a two-decade long war in Afghanistan is finally near its completion. Pakistan is faced with the serious challenge of dealing with the future Afghan refugees if a civil war ensues from here. Regardless of what happens next, the heavy Indian investment in Afghanistan’s current government is sinking, damaging India’s economic and strategic designs immensely. The US attitude in the entire episode is totally centered towards one objective, i.e. safe and sound withdrawal, and it is therefore unable to lend support to its partners like India. Pakistan’s role is very important as it is the biggest facilitator of Afghan Peace, since it has some leverage with respect to avoiding a civil war and bloodshed but Pakistan’s role has been over-rated all these years and the fact is it cannot guarantee anything, especially when it comes to peace in Afghanistan. The immediate consequences of violence in Afghanistan will have to be faced by Pakistan, therefore Pakistan’s best bet would be to do all it can to facilitate a peaceful settlement with all major stake-holders on board. But will Pakistan’s wish come true, is a serious question whose answer remains deeply hidden in the future.
About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale-47. He Studies International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets
he views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.