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Fallout from US withdrawal

Amb. (R) Asif Durrani

18th Aug, 2021. 09:00 am

There is a consensus amongst the neighbours of Afghanistan (China, Iran, Russia and three Central Asian states neighbouring Afghanistan — Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) about the American troops’ withdrawal from the country. Although Pakistan would have wished installation of a reconciliation government in Afghanistan before the American departure, it would support the emerging regional consensus about the American decision.

Pakistan will have to take the sensitivities of the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan in view while maintaining its relations with the Taliban or its future interaction with the US, including a possible grant of bases to the latter. Although denied by the Prime Minister Imran Khan in an interview to the HBO TV18 and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the National Assembly that no bases have been promised to the US, a Taliban spokesman warned neighbouring countries on May 26, not to allow the US forces to use their military bases and airspace against Afghanistan. So far, the US has not succeeded in convincing Pakistan to acquiesce in granting bases to monitor the situation in Afghanistan.

For the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, withdrawal of US/NATO troops would entail greater responsibilities. In an interview with BBC-4 on May 5, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, indicated to remain engaged with Afghanistan even after the withdrawal by assisting the country “economically, development assistance, humanitarian, supporting its security forces.” However, he bluntly alluded to Afghans and their immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, enjoying the free ride on the “US, NATO and other partners.” Not only the US wants to wash its hands from the Afghan liability, but it would also like to leave the “Afghan headache” to the immediate neighbours to tackle. However, it would maintain a diplomatic presence to monitor the situation and, where needed, influence the events to its favour.

Regionally, the US withdrawal would be seen with a degree of satisfaction, especially by Iran, Russia and China. Lessening the American footprint on Afghanistan would mean less friction with the US and more access to Afghanistan for tactical and strategic reasons. These countries’ direct relationship with the Taliban is a paradigm shift compared to the pre-9/11 situation when the Taliban ruled the land. Unlike the past, now the Taliban enjoy recognition amongst immediate neighbours as legitimate stakeholders and are much more capable of bringing order and neutralising the influence and ingress of ISIS/Al-Qaeda. A short projection of each country’s approach about future dispensation in Afghanistan would be as under:

China has been persistently emphasising a responsible withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The unrest at the China-Afghan border may be detrimental to its security, mainly due to the Uighur secessionist movement. There are reports of many Uighur secessionists taking shelter in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal would afford China to reach out to the future dispensation and secure assurances that the Uighurs would not use Afghanistan’s territory. China would be happy to offer economic incentives to the future Afghan government, including a share in the BRI/CPEC projects.

For Russia, the US withdrawal would mean lesser chances of American interference in the Central Asian states. Already, Russia has been accusing the US of resettling ISIS/Daesh from Iraq/Syria to Afghanistan. Taliban would be acceptable to the Russians if the former does not allow Central Asian jihadist groups or Chechens to make sanctuaries in Afghanistan. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned the Taliban of “monopolising power in Afghanistan”, implying that they will have to board other Afghan stakeholders.

Iran, however, may have a slightly different stance towards the Taliban due to its close contacts with the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras dating back to pre-9/11. Iran may use the Shia card with the Hazaras and the Persian card with the Tajiks and Uzbeks. Nevertheless, Iran would be satisfied with the US withdrawal as it would secure its borders from American interference. Iran has also evolved a working relationship with the Taliban during the past 15 years and has reportedly given financial and military assistance.

Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries would be interested in a dispensation in Afghanistan that is not pro-Iran. Saudi Arabia tried to host Taliban and American dialogue in Riyadh, but Qatar took the lead in facilitating the peace process. Being an important member of the Muslim community, Saudi Arabia can play a significant role in bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table. In addition, Saudi financial assistance would be crucial for the future of the government in Afghanistan.

Apart from Afghan beneficiaries of the American presence, India would be the only country in the region to be upset about the US withdrawal. India would see Taliban ascension as a setback to its objective of sabotage in Pakistan through Afghan intelligence, NDS and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Indians may lose the leverage on Afghan governmental machinery, including media houses which are a powerful instrument in maligning Pakistan.

There is a growing realisation in India that it cannot remain aloof to the situation and may want to establish a link with the Taliban to secure its investments in Afghanistan. Indian commentators justify contacts with the Taliban as a part of its “larger strategic objectives.” However, they hasten to add that such an engagement “does not mean providing legitimacy…India can adopt old diplomatic stance of recognising a regime without approving its conduct.” There are reports of Indian contacts with the Taliban signalling a review of the Indian policy towards the Taliban. India may have realised that a Taliban-dominated dispensation in Afghanistan would leave little chances to use Afghan territory for its anti-Pakistan activities, including stoking unrest in Balochistan and financially supporting the TTP. There are also moves to improve relations with Pakistan; ceasefire along the LoC and possibility of the restoration of Article 370 and 35A in the Indian Constitution are some of the measures pointing to this direction.

Withdrawal and Challenges to the Peace process

Many factors would influence the developments between the US troop withdrawal and the peace process’ final disposition. However, the following deserve attention in the post-pullout period:

The United States unconditional withdrawal has created uncertainty in Afghanistan leading to speculations that the US has accepted the Taliban as a fait accompli. Since a rapprochement is not in sight, one can anticipate chaos in the country leading to civil war. Taliban’s non-compromising stance may force other religious and ethnic groups in Afghanistan to gang up with external support, including India and Iran.

With the withdrawal of American troops, the Taliban have started capturing many districts in the country. The capture of territory may have a psychological impact in the country, especially on those ethnic or religious groups that may not have a good experience during the Taliban rule. There are also reports of the migration of well to do Afghans to other countries. The Pentagon is making arrangements to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters and other personnel working with the American troops, to the US in order to save them from the Taliban reprisal attacks once the US troops leave Afghanistan.

According to the UN report, 2020 was the “most violent year” ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan. Security incidents have risen over 60% in the first three months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. The UN report says that the Taliban are “reported to be responsible for the great majority of targeted assassinations that have become a feature of the violence in Afghanistan and to weaken the Government’s capacity and intimidating civil society.”

Opium cultivation is another thorny issue that would be the focus of international community for being one of the major sources of war economy, enriching government officials, warlords and Taliban.

Internal Dynamics of Withdrawal  

The US and the EU are likely to play hardball with the Taliban, particularly on human rights issues in which women’s rights occupy the central place. The future recognition of the Taliban regime would depend on how tactfully the Taliban negotiate and get recognition from the broader membership of the international community. Unlike in the past, it would be difficult for Pakistan to recognise the Taliban regime if it fails to achieve wider recognition.

The perception that the Taliban would proffer military victory over a negotiated settlement poses a significant challenge to the religious militia’s image and future governance. Even while in negotiations, the Taliban would prefer a government where they enjoy absolute power and allow other groups to join the government as junior partners. Taliban’s refusal to agree to a ceasefire during negotiations with the Afghan government’s nominated delegation reinforces the perception about the Taliban’s rigidity and preference for a military solution over dialogue.

The ruling elite in Afghanistan is accused of nepotism and corruption, which is the most critical factor of bad governance. The Afghan officials also blame the international donors of corruption, but in a sophisticated manner, as the assistance to Afghanistan is channeled through donors’ contractors whose over-invoicing leaves very little for the Afghans to benefit.

There is a likelihood of ethnic divide with the Taliban’s ascension while the latter represents the Pashtuns. Historically, such a divide has been in existence ever since Afghanistan came into being. However, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the country’s military structure started eroding to the extent that the armed forces almost melted after the fall of Najibullah. The country plunged into warlords’ power struggle; the state structure was destroyed, causing free for all anarchy. Emergence of the Taliban on the scene and their fierce resistance to the US-led NATO coalition has established this rag-tag militia’s credentials. Despite lacking modern equipment, the Taliban have demonstrated remarkable discipline in their ranks, which enabled them to withstand the US onslaught. This is acknowledged by the American commentators as well. The future system of governance in Afghanistan would be a challenge not in terms of ideological rift between the Taliban and incumbent rulers, but because of power politics between the two sides. A comparison of Afghan society in terms of human rights portrays a sorry state of affairs, if tested according to the international standards. In a country where the “victor or vanquished” psyche prevails throughout the history of Afghanistan and where dominance over the rivals in a tribal setup is eulogised, introducing democratic norms and practices would take generations of active engagement by the international community for the socio-political engineering of the Afghan society. Ironically, during the past four decades, the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil wars have negatively impacted the country in a variety of ways, for instance poverty, inter-ethnic strife, inequality of women, and widespread thievery, kidnapping and banditry. Historically, blood feuds have run amongst the tribes for generations, and revenge is regarded as a necessary redress of wrongs.

This is the second part of a report published by Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI).

The writer is the former ambassador to Iran and UAE.

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