Ideally, the withdrawal of the American/NATO troops should have followed long-term engagements with the future dispensation in Afghanistan to keep the country afloat and ensuring that extremist forces may not regroup. Therefore, a political rapprochement between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani’s government would have provided the necessary environment to establish peace and stability. However, there is little hope for rapprochement; the two antagonists are heading for a showdown, causing concerns in the neighbourhood since the ensuing chaos may have severe implications. Pakistan and other neighbours may face a massive influx of refugees.
From the regional perspective, the US presence in Afghanistan had started giving diminishing returns as the memories of 9/11 begun to fade away. The immediate neighbours of Afghanistan became uncomfortable with the American military presence. China, Russia and Iran have started looking at the US presence in Afghanistan as a veritable irritant that may threaten their national security. The US sanctions against China, Iran and Russia on various pretexts have contributed to the tensions reminiscent of the Cold War.
For Pakistan, the American military presence lost its shine because of growing American demands on Pakistan to “do more.” This was more to cover its failures in Afghanistan. Moreover, the US’ cold approach to Pakistan’s protestations over India’s misuse of the Afghan territory to fan unrest in Pakistan has only added to Pakistan’s frustration and distrust. However, amidst speculations of American demand from Pakistan for granting bases to monitor Al Qaeda/Daesh and denial by the latter of such a possibility, hectic diplomatic activity is discernable, which points to the seriousness of the situation.
The US withdrawal of troops will impact the Afghan situation and the region, which is the focus of this study. From Pakistan’s perspective, the study looks into the Taliban factor and the fate of the incumbent order led by President Ashraf Ghani; state of political development in Afghanistan after 20 years of Western supervision; role of the UN; and the emerging regional scenario under the shadow of uneasiness in Pakistan-US relations and a possible way out. The resultant mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan could pose added challenges amid economic slowdown, deserving due attention with remedial measures.
President Joe Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, will have implications for all the stakeholders in the game, especially Pakistan. The tone of President Biden’s statement showed that his administration was satisfied with the Taliban assurances on denying sanctuaries to the terrorists. Therefore, US troop withdrawal would be unconditional. Some reports suggest that the United States troops and their NATO allies intend to be out of Afghanistan by early to mid-July, well ahead of President Biden’s September 11 withdrawal deadline.
As regards, denial of sanctuaries to terrorists, the US may be justified to seek cooperation from the future government of Afghanistan. At the same time, the US will have to explain to critics how Daesh/ISIS took roots in Afghanistan under their watch while controlling the country during the past two decades. Already, Russia has been accusing the US of resettling ISIS/Daesh from Iraq/Syria to Afghanistan. Russian Ambassador in Islamabad Alexey Dedov, while indirectly accusing the US, told a seminar in February 2018 that: “with clear connivance, and sometimes even with the direct support of certain local and outside sponsors, thousands of militants of various nationalities are consolidating under the banners of Daesh there (in northern Afghanistan), including jihadis from Syria and Iraq.”
Secondly, and more significantly, with the pullout announcement, Mr Biden seems to have reoriented his geopolitical priorities. He made no bones about shifting his focus from Afghanistan to China in his future priorities when he said: “We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.” Therefore, by challenging China, Biden’s announcement offers a much bigger playfield in the geopolitical arena. Furthermore, the US intends to support allies from Europe, the Indo-Pacific region and India, propped up as a “counterweight to China” to achieve these objectives. The G-7 Summit’s declaration further reinforced the concerns that the US and its allies are making grounds for the new Cold War, which may have far-reaching implications for the world peace and economic development. To begin with, the G-7 offered an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to counter the Chinese growing influence in the world.
Impact of US withdrawal on Afghanistan
The US has spent approximately one trillion dollars on its Afghan operations during the past two decades. After the withdrawal, the US would save $45-50 billion per annum. The withdrawal of American troops would add to the political capital of President Biden, who has been against the US military presence in Afghanistan from the very beginning and favoured the ending of the forever war in Afghanistan. Strategically, after extracting assurances from the Taliban that Al-Qaeda/ISIS would not misuse the Afghan soil, the US’ objective of bearing a significant part of Afghan liability would be over. In the post-withdrawal period, the following scenarios deserve attention:
Financially, the US drawdown would deprive Afghanistan of a significant source of economic and military assistance. The US supports 80% of Afghan National Defense Forces (ANDF) expenditure apart from sharing the substantive burden of the country’s civil administration. On average, the US spends $8-9 billion on Afghanistan annually to keep the country’s civil and military administration afloat.9 The EU shares 15% of the burden. How the future Afghan government would run the affairs of the state without US/EU financial support has yet to be decided.
According to estimates, the bulk of the money spent in Afghanistan has been on counter-insurgency operations. However, official data shows that since 2002, the US has also spent about $143.27bn on reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. More than half ($88.32bn) was spent on building up Afghan security forces, including the Afghan National Army and police force. Nearly $36bn has been allocated for governance and development, while smaller amounts were also allocated for anti-drug efforts and for humanitarian aid. Some of this money has been lost to waste, fraud and abuse over the years. In a report to the US Congress in October 2020, the watchdog responsible for the oversight of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan estimated that about $19bn had been lost this way between May 2009 and December 31, 2019.
European donor governments and NATO troop-supporting states all appear to seek further clarity on the future trajectory of the Afghan conflict, its potential for escalation as well as political settlement, and the composition of a future Afghan government before staking out long-term trajectories of engagement and support of their own.
So far, the Afghan leadership and warlords have been extracting financial benefits without offering much political stability after the fall of the Taliban. The Afghan officials’ “rent-seeking” approach made it easier for them to dump the blame at Pakistan’s doors for supporting the Taliban and causing instability in Afghanistan. However, the Afghan leadership utterly failed to improve the country’s socio-economic conditions or take any initiative that may have brought stability or rapprochement, on their own. In sum, the US pullout would be a nightmare for the present dispensation and rent-seekers in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s poppy economy is dominated by a group of 20 to 30 families, whose position of power as the primary traders of opium and heroin allows them to earn the largest share of profits from the drug trade, further complicates the issue. As local power-brokers, these drug rentiers cooperate alternatively with the Western governments, the Afghan government, and the Taliban. A high proportion of drug proceeds leave Afghanistan’s borders, often heading for Dubai or Switzerland. Some is spent on investment in Afghanistan’s legitimate economy from the remaining. However, much is spent on “lobbying” government officials, leading to a messy entanglement of the drug trade, the licit economy and government. After 9/11, despite international efforts led by the United Kingdom to eradicate opium from Afghanistan, the reverse had happened, and opium production almost doubled in the country. UNODC estimates Afghan narcotic business worth $50 billion, out of which $5 billion returns to Afghanistan and “benefits” who-is-who of Afghanistan, including top Afghan government officials, warlords, and Taliban. The absence of international understanding to tackle the narcotics business may push the future dispensation in the country to bank on the narco-money to sustain their affairs.
Politically, the American pullout would leave a vacuum in Afghanistan. Given the sharp differences amongst different ethnic and religious factions in the country and lack of motivation in the Afghan armed forces, the country may plunge into chaos. Taliban are already flexing their muscles to fill the vacuum thus created, due to the implosion in Afghan society.
This is the first part of a report published by Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI).
The writer is the former ambassador to Iran and UAE.