Post the US withdrawal, the key to addressing Afghanistan’s problems lies in a comprehensive three-pronged strategy. The first prong may deal with Afghanistan’s internal problems, which should be left to the Afghans to tackle without outside interference. The second prong should be regional, especially the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, to ensure that no outside forces take undue advantage of the situation in the country or align with the Afghan spoilers. The third prong could be the global response to Afghanistan’s economic and security needs and dealing with the repatriation of Afghan refugees.
Despite differences in approaches, Pakistan has been a linchpin for the Americans in the Afghan imbroglio. It dates back to four decades of erratic but workable partnership and is likely to continue in future, even if tactically with frequent irritants. Pakistan has prevailed on the Taliban to the extent that they stick to the agreement with the US. It is encouraging that since the signing of the deal, no American or NATO forces personnel have lost life due to the Taliban’s attacks. The US is likely to follow an “Afghan-centric” approach in its relations with Pakistan. Therefore, while expecting little, Pakistan may strive to improve relations with the US.
However, Pakistan will have to be circumspect while dealing with the Biden administration for various reasons, including its influence with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF); international financial institutions, and, more importantly, military equipment in the use of Pakistan’s defence forces. Therefore, for the time being, Pakistan may continue to raise its demands for greater cooperation in political, trade, and defence fields, but keep its expectations with the US at the lowest level.
A chaotic Afghanistan may create challenges for the entire region, especially for Pakistan. Pakistan’s objective of establishing connectivity with Central Asia and operationalisation of CPEC projects may receive a setback. Pakistani officials apprehend that Afghanistan’s internal (NDS and former Northern Alliance) and external spoilers (India) may continue to push the country into chaos and destruction.
Being a facilitator of US-Taliban talks, the US and other stakeholders in Afghanistan would be expecting a more significant role of Pakistan in stabilising the situation in the country. However, these expectations may be misplaced or exaggerated due to various reasons beyond Pakistan’s capacity or any facilitator’s control. The following factors deserve consideration due to the complex nature of the conflict in Afghanistan: First, the US and European countries may pressure Pakistan to “do more” after the withdrawal of American troops.
Former President Ashraf Ghani and pro-status quo Afghan groups had been lobbying with the Europeans to impose sanctions against Pakistan if it does not “control” the Taliban. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s protestations that the Taliban act independently does not register favourably with most of the Europeans. Hence, assuming a mediatory role would be difficult for Pakistan. Irrespective of pressures, prudence demands that Afghans be left to their own devices without outside interference.
Second, if the internal situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, Pakistan should expect the influx of more Afghan refugees when its economy is hard-pressed, and there is little hope of international assistance for the upkeep of refugees. Pakistan should take necessary measures to cope with the emergency situation arising due to exodus of Afghans to Pakistan.
The US pullout from Afghanistan has left a vacuum, especially in providing overall security and financial assistance to run the Afghan civil and military institutions. If the US assistance to Afghanistan dries up in future, then the burden of sustaining Afghanistan would fall on the immediate neighbours and international community. The following steps could be flagged for the future peace and stability of Afghanistan:
Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours should evolve a mechanism to ensure that the Afghan soil is not used by extremists/terrorists. The concerned countries could work out a joint mechanism to monitor the activities of Al-Qaeda/Daesh. If needed, the UN Security Council may approve the deployment of observers in Afghanistan to monitor the extremists/terrorists in the country. Deployment of the UN/OIC peace contingent could also be considered.
Together with the international community, Pakistan should work for the financial assistance of Afghanistan to sustain the country’s economy and its armed forces.
Pakistan and Iran may sensitise the international community for the repatriation of Afghan refugees. The neighbours of Afghanistan should also work out a strategy to tackle the influx of refugees, if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.
The immediate neighbours of Afghanistan and the US should ensure that Afghan warlords or religious groups do not receive assistance from abroad. A similar demarche may be made to India to stop playing the role of a spoiler and cease its activities in Afghanistan aimed at stoking unrest in Pakistani Balochistan or subsidising the TTP.
The US’ search for bases outside Afghanistan, preferably in Pakistan or in other countries, would be the most severe challenge for Pakistan for a host of reasons:
- While the US has agreed with the Taliban to pullout from Afghanistan, it wants to maintain its military presence on the pretext of countering Al-Qaeda/Daesh. However, the question arises that while the Taliban have given guarantees to the US that it would not allow sanctuaries to Al-Qaeda/Daesh in areas under their control, the US insistence on maintaining bases in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood does not appeal to logic.
- What the US/NATO could not achieve during the past two decades’ involvement in Afghanistan would be hard to achieve through small bases in the neighbourhood.
iii. The US has left Afghanistan under an agreement with the Taliban. The question arises whether post the withdrawal, the US will consider the Taliban as an adversary or a stakeholder in Afghanistan.
- There is a consensus amongst the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan about the US troop withdrawal. Expecting Pakistan to give bases to the US on not so convincing grounds would amount to breaching the unwritten consensus with the immediate neighbours, especially China. Such a policy may go against Pakistan’s interests, which may be the American objective; to sow the seeds of discord with the Taliban and China.
- The US is unlikely to get bases elsewhere in the neighbourhood. The Russian presidential envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has made it clear that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would not allow military bases to the Americans. It is evident that with no air or land access, the US has become isolated in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan.
- After entering into a strategic partnership with India, the US has lost Pakistan’s trust, which may not be bridged any time soon. The US’ lack of interest in counselling India to resolve the Kashmir dispute or/and eschewing from stoking unrest in Pakistani Balochistan or supporting the TTP through Afghanistan, has further deepened this distrust.
vii. Finally, if the US pressure for granting bases mounts, Pakistan should agree on such bases only if authorised by the UN Security Council, akin with the case when the Security Council authorised military action against the Taliban under the UNSC resolution 1373. Pakistan’s logic should be that Al-Qaeda/Daesh inspired terrorism is a universal phenomenon. It should be tackled by the international community as a whole rather than dealt with by the US or its allies.
Pakistan should now seriously strive for a regional approach aimed at promoting geoeconomics. Pakistan’s best bet is China; therefore, it should, despite American criticism, single-mindedly pursue completion of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects to build its economic muscles. In fact, Pakistan’s strategic alliance with China would take care of Indian machinations in the region and instead create a “two-front” situation for India, which the latter would be unable to confront even if sustained by the American military and technological assistance.
In the meanwhile, Pakistan should hold consultations with Iran, China, Russia and Turkey (for Uzbeks) to ensure that neighbours of Afghanistan are on one page and discourage spoilers from derailing the withdrawal process or provoking Afghan factions to take up arms again after the withdrawal. It is high time that Pakistan evolves a strong regional policy, secure its borders and focus on economic development. For the achievement of above goals, Pakistan needs partners in the region rather than looking for allies far afield. For the time being, the country’s top priority should be peace and stability in Afghanistan in cooperation with the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s regional approach may receive a further boost if dialogue with India resumes and both sides take confidence-building measures to resolve the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. However, India will have to take concrete measures to address the concerns of the Kashmiris and take the dialogue process forward with Pakistan without preconditions. Improvement of relations with India will catalyse Pakistan’s pursuit for geoeconomics, especially paving the way for greater connectivity between South and Central Asia, which is currently missing due to India’s absence from the equation.
This is the fourth part of a report published by Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI).
The writer is the former ambassador to Iran and UAE.