US Drawdown In Afghanistan: Impact And Potential Outcomes For Pakistan
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. This quote – attributed to Mark Twain with or without credence – most aptly describes the past four decades of war and conflict in Afghanistan; hopefully it won’t define Afghanistan’s future, but it will be most unfortunate if it does.
The last week of April has two potent memories from Afghanistan’s past: the “Saur Revolution” – a label attached to the 27 April 1978 coup by the left-wing PDPA’s Khalq faction – and the mujahideen takeover of Kabul on 28 April 1992 – when Ahmad Shah Massoud reluctantly signed a governance agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – after five days of street battles in the Afghan capital. In hindsight, neither of these anniversaries can serve as good memories for the Afghan people. The 1978 “revolution” polarized the Afghan nation, etching battle lines between the conservative rural populace and the liberal socialist elite of the time, and paved the way for a Soviet military invasion a year or so later.
The vacuum created by warlord infighting after the Soviet withdrawal was filled by the Taliban, who unleashed a brutal isolationist regime that still is the stuff of nightmares for democrats, liberals, rights activists, modernists, reformers, and most importantly, the Afghan womenfolk.
That we could still relive such tragedies between May and September 2021, and beyond, is a sobering reminder to all introspective human beings around the world. It especially jolts those who have been concerned about the worldwide killing of Muslims – not just by the military forces of Western nations, but more so by terrorist groups that are operated and managed by so-called Muslims who proclaim themselves defenders of the Islamic faith – since the Global War on Terror began in 2001. Nearly a month after the dastardly attacks on the US homeland, etched into our collective memory with videos of the twin towers of New York city’s World Trade Center imploding after being targeted with passenger planes, then-US President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan to bring the perpetrators to justice and in the process spread ‘freedom and democracy’ in Afghanistan.
Nearly 20 years later, Afghan democracy remains fragile and Afghan security forces as well as citizens still have to literally fight for their freedom. In the midst of a global pandemic, the world has more or less forgotten about radical Islamist terrorism: mass migration between regions has almost ceased, as has airline travel. While Al Qaeda has been significantly degraded but not wholly defeated, the Afghan Taliban remain the most relevant military element in the landlocked country.
Since their resurgence in 2005-06, the Taliban have now come to a point where they exclaim that they have defeated another mighty superpower: the United States.
The real boost for the Taliban’s ego – much more so than inflicting regular defeats and deadly attacks on Afghan security forces – came when the Trump administration recognized them as an equal partner, and went above the heads of the Afghan government to sign a ‘peace agreement’ directly with the Taliban. This US-Taliban agreement was signed in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February 2019; the most important stipulation therein was that military forces of the US and its allies would leave Afghanistan by 1 May 2021. The Biden administration, which took office earlier this year, has unilaterally delayed completion of the withdrawal to 11 September – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – but did not renegotiate the terms with the Taliban, who are incensed and have been threatening to ramp up attacks targeting US and NATO forces if they don’t leave as agreed earlier. The Taliban have already killed more than 100 Afghan security personnel since the announcement of the delay. A suicide attack on a guest house in Logar province on 30 April is blamed on the Taliban’s ‘anger’ that foreign troops were not leaving by 1 May; even though no-one has claimed responsibility for it as yet.
The US-Afghan deal also called for intra-Afghan peace negotiations, between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, which have sputtered off-and-on and haven’t really gone anywhere. Meanwhile, Afghan security forces and the Taliban regularly engage each other in attacks and counter-attacks, while asymmetric attacks and terrorist incidents in Afghan cities are usually blamed on the Taliban. So intra-Afghan war continues to proceed with greater frequency, ferocity and seriousness than does intra-Afghan peace.
The US decision to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan is being seen as a victory for Pakistan and its ISI, mythologized in the West as the Taliban’s overlords, but if there is no infrastructure for accommodating peace or for ensuring checks and balances on the warring factions, then there will be no winners post-US withdrawal, just as there were none after the Soviets withdrew.
The Taliban’s refusal to participate in the UN-organized intra-Afghan peace dialogue in Ankara, Turkey, has also angered Pakistan. Their refusal came in spite of Pakistani pressure; to which the Taliban simply stated that they would “not accept any outsider interfering in Afghanistan” and its internal affairs. It has been reported that Pakistan has warned the Taliban that “enough is enough” and that the latter would face dire consequences if they do not discard their inflexibility in the Afghan peace process, acquiesce to participating in an interim Afghan government setup, and cease their covert nurturing of the TTP or ‘Pakistani Taliban’.
That last part, the synergy between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, is something that remains subject to the agreed proviso that Afghan territory will not be used by any group to plot terror attacks against any nation. It was recently reported that the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, the Taliban’s official title, has been circulating a “code of conduct” to that effect, and will not allow organizations to operate anywhere in Afghanistan unless they register and ‘swear allegiance’ to the IEA. It also remains to be seen what the Taliban do with Baloch separatist militants enjoying safe haven in Afghanistan for the past many years.
And if the Taliban’s increasingly frosty attitude isn’t indicative of how Pakistan is in less and less of a controlling position vis-à-vis Afghanistan, there remains the potential that a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan does not imply that it will leave the region to its own devices. Of course, since President Biden himself called it the “forever war”, it is quite likely that its exponents would undertake all-out attempts to at best redesign, or at worst totally frustrate, the US military pullout. To this end, there have been rumors that the US would extricate its military bases from Afghanistan but set up counterterror bases across the border in Pakistan, where it would maintain a ‘stand-off’ or ‘over the horizon’ capability to attack the Taliban, or defend the Kabul administration, or both. Pakistani President Dr. Arif Alvi quite intuitively and tersely told VOA News that Pakistan “would not be in a position” to offer such a facility to the Americans: while US ‘boots on the ground’ has always been an extremely sensitive red line for the Pakistani security establishment, it is likely – not without unambiguous clarification, of course – that air lines of communication (ALOCs) would continue to remain open for US military aircraft operating in Afghanistan.
No matter how bad the Afghan security situation gets, there are myriad reasons why US military basing in Pakistan is a counterproductive idea to begin with. Dispensing with the ‘bad experiences’ of US drone flights operating from Shamsi airbase in Balochistan, or Pakistan’s interminably persistent refusal to allow US troops to operate on its territory – even when both were close allies – the geostrategic calculus has also shifted immensely.
After subduing its own terrorist insurgency, Pakistan is now focusing on an economic revival courtesy Chinese investment in CPEC, which envisions overland transportation corridors running north-south across Pakistan. Operationalizing the Gwadar deep seaport is also a central pillar of CPEC, and this means that China would not at all be keen on any US military presence in Pakistan along the Afghan border – or conversely, on the western alignment route of the economic corridor.
Intelligence sources and military analysts even argue that military overflights crossing Balochistan en route to Afghanistan and back could offer the Chinese many lucrative opportunities to harvest data on US stealth weapons – or even attempt to target and neutralize one of America’s latest and costliest weapons platforms. Such wargaming indeed evokes the worst case scenarios: but it remains quite unlikely that Pakistan – despite its delicate balancing act – would offer itself up as the next Djibouti wherein military bases of adversarial global powers could exist adjacent to each other in relative harmony, if at all. Nevertheless, confrontational US attempts to contain Chinese expansion, and China’s increasingly negative perception of America’s efforts against it, sufficiently preclude this from happening.
If the Afghan peace process falters, the greatest danger to Pakistan is not posed by a dominant Taliban in Afghanistan, but by what it could inspire – in social, political and security dimensions – within the country itself.
Pakistan has successfully fought terrorism in the kinetic domain, but remains either unable or unwilling to challenge extremism and intolerance that is latent across society but potent and effervescent. This has been exposed by the recent rise of the TLP – of the Barelvi faction of Pakistan’s Sunni majority, whose ideology was thought to be more moderate, syncretic and tolerant than the Deobandi faction – and their morphing into a powerful, organized, nationwide, and sometimes violent political movement. If the Taliban take the reins of government in Kabul – by the ballot or the bullet – then it can be logically postulated that conservative religious segments pervading Pakistani society would be further galvanized to replicate that ‘success’ in Pakistan.
Looking at the performance of the incumbent PTI government, as well as the results of the recent by-election in Karachi’s NA-249 constituency, it could be assumed that the TLP’s ‘Namoos-e-Rasalat’ narrative could push it further up the victory stand in the 2023 general elections. One would be utterly remiss to ignore the machinations of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, who can deftly organize alliances of religious political parties – in the form of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA, which governed both KP and Balochistan provinces during the Musharraf regime – much more effectively than he has been able to bring mainstream political parties – such as the PPP and PML-N – together on the anti-government PDM platform. The Maulana, head of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and Siraj-ul-Haq, emir of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), were quick to offer support for the TLP’s mass mobilization efforts as well as its call for a general strike across Pakistan after the most recent TLP protest was ended by force. On this occasion, all the bitter ideological and sectarian differences between the Deobandis – who form the backbone of both JUI and JI – and the Barelvis – who are the rank and file of TLP as well as other Sunni groups – were forgotten; including the times that they had labelled each other as innovators or apostates.
So as the US appears to finally be extricating itself from the Afghan quagmire – perhaps not abandoning it as totally as it did in the early 1990s, though only time will tell – and seeks to ‘look inwards’ to invest in its own people and fix its own economy, Pakistan’s stability and security depend largely on the outcome in Afghanistan, which remains uncertain so far. Pakistan would be better served by looking inward as well: fixing its endemic governance failures; stabilizing its economy by rebuilding its foundations more equitably and solidly; constructing a culture of peace and tolerance by fostering democratic institutions, rebalancing the disproportionate power and primacy of the establishment, and emphasizing rule of law and justice for all (especially for the most vulnerable, such as minorities and the poor) as the basis and rationale for the state’s relevance in public life.
Most importantly, the Pakistani nation-state must focus on addressing and resolving the deep divisions and faultlines within Pakistani society ingrained by decades of intellectual poverty, lack of uniform education standards, simony (religious and sectarian mercantilism), and tactlessly deliberate infusion of Islamism into national discourse as a cumbersome counterweight for the popular appeal of mainstream political parties. Otherwise, the trends of pervasive intolerance could suddenly manifest into violent extremism and terrorist militancy once again: this time fueled by the general public’s discontent at the conditions of both economy and polity, and the utter contempt with which they view the current government and, by causation or extension thereof, the powerful institutions and instruments of the state itself.
As the reckless optimist would say: better late than never…
Shemrez is a research analyst specialising in economic security and the political economy of terrorism, extremism and identity. He most recently served as an intelligence officer at NACTA, Government of Pakistan, where he helped establish the Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID). He tweets at @shemrez.