What Will Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan Look Like?
A Pashtun dominated centralised state in Afghanistan serves Pakistan’s strategic interests well. However, Pakistan’s powerful security establishment has, of late, shown enough sophistication to make space in its strategic thinking — for other ethnicities that form part of Afghan nation — to join the Pushtuns in Kabul. Having said that, Pakistan’s military leaders have displayed nervousness with regards to the possibility of increased violence in Afghanistan—which will have two adverse implications for the Pakistani society.
Firstly, it could lead to large scale displacement in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan leading to an inflow of refugees in border areas of Pakistan. Secondly, increased violence in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan could give a push to the Pakistani militant groups, whose power, as Pakistani military claims, was decimated by successive military operations. And who could now take queue from Afghan Taliban in unleashing a wave of violence on Pakistan’s side of the border.
However the post-US withdrawal in Afghanistan doesn’t present a clear and neat strategic scenario for Pakistani security establishment. It is unlike the mid 1990s scenario when Taliban’s military victories created euphoria in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. This time Taliban military advances could give Pakistan security planners a headache—Taliban’s military advances in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan, if they are not welcomed by regional players like Russia, Iran and China or if they fail to receive tacit approval of the regional players, the developing military situation inside Afghanistan would add to Pakistan’s isolation at the international level.
True, it would be no different from the situation Pakistan faced in the mid-1990s at the time of Taliban’s rise, but then, at that time, Pakistani military establishment was not engaged in a campaign to attract Washington’s support for its efforts to present the country as hub of regional connectivity. There is a clear realisation in Pakistan’s foreign policy circles that the US’s unilateral decision to withdraw from Afghanistan indicate that Washington is no more fixated on terrorism related issues, which for all practical purposes mean dwindling strategic importance of Islamabad. Coupled with this is Islamabad’s inability in sustaining the financial and political assistance from country’s chief patrons like oil rich Arab states, whose leadership no longer seems to be in a mood of supporting so-called ‘Islamic causes’ all over the world.
There are, however, weak signals emanating from regional capitals that Pakistani security establishment’s ‘strategic assets’— as Afghan Taliban have often been referred to in international media—enjoy some support among the regional countries like Russia, Iran and China. During the peak of US presence in Afghanistan, the US intelligence reportedly presented US Administration with the information that Iran and Russia both were providing weapons, intelligence support and finances to Taliban for attacks on US forces inside Afghanistan. And Afghan Taliban, at the behest of Russians and Iranians, have carried out operations against Daesh affiliated groups in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan, in the period between 2014 and 2016, when there was a sudden rise in the profile of ISIS in Afghanistan. Pakistani ISI even hosted the intelligence chiefs of Russia, Iran and China in Islamabad for a conference in July 2018 where it was agreed that the four intelligence services would coordinate their efforts against the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.
Does this mean that Russia and Iran have a working relationship with Afghan Taliban? Does it also mean that for regional players the conservative Taliban are more acceptable than the radical ISIS and other Salafi groups which, according to reports, were emerging inside Afghanistan? No clear answers to these questions so far exist in the public realm. Iran has welcomed withdrawal of foreign troops and Russia has indicated willingness to use military force to protect its regional allies like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Taliban are not mentioned as a threat in any of the Russian statements, though it is obvious that increased violence and instability will be disliked by these states.
A series of formal talks and visits of Afghan Taliban to regional capitals might have changed the image of religious militia. But their behaviour in the days to come will influence the policy these regional capitals will adopt towards Afghanistan. Most of the international experts predict that a civil war is likely in the post-US Afghanistan. What will make Afghan Taliban unacceptable to the regional players is their continued links with Al-Qaida.
In its 2020 report, the UN Taliban monitoring team said the Taliban still have strong ties with Al-Qaeda. The Taliban provide Al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Between two hundred and five hundred Al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, and several of its leaders were killed. The Taliban ‘regularly consulted’ with Al-Qaeda leaders during its negotiations with the United States, providing ‘guarantees that it would honour their historical ties,’ the UN monitor reports. Al-Qaida are affiliated with a large number of terror groups originating in Chinese Xinjiang and Central Asian States.
At the end of the day, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan will be strongly shaped by attitudes of regional players. Similarly Pakistani security establishment until recently was pitching the idea of Pakistan as a hub of regional connectivity to Washington. A civil war in Afghanistan will not be conducive to the success of this idea and similarly Pakistan’s too much reliance on Afghan Taliban, can utterly spoil its move to project itself as connectivity hub, unless it could convince Taliban to enter into a power sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.