Post-withdrawal uncertainties | By M Ziauddin


Post-withdrawal uncertainties

BELIEVING that the war between two superpowers of the day—the US and the USSR—to be a never ending affair, Pakistan had prepared no plan ‘B’ to cope with the aftermath that the US left in Afghanistan as it walked away even before Soviet troops completed their withdrawal in February 1989 following the signing of the Geneva Accords in April 1988.

What followed was no less than a catastrophe for Pakistan. We are still suffering, politically, economically and sociallyfrom the ensuing bloody upheavals.

Currently we seem to be facing a similar situation unfolding across the Durand Line. We were certainly taken by surprise when the US announced its decision to withdraw unconditionally from what the Americans had started describing as the ‘forever’ war.

The withdrawal is now in progress with the civil war in full swing but withno clear winner in sight.

Not that we did not want the US boots to go back home at the earliest. But we also knew that since the World War ll, the US has not withdrawn its troops from regions that it believed needed its continued military cover for the safety and protection of the so-called free world.

And the region where Afghanistan islocated is no different. It borders China, America’s new challenger for world markets and military prowess; Pakistan, a nuclear armed country and; Iran with serious nuclear ambitions.

Therefore, the surprise.Pakistan has been justifying its support for the Afghan Taliban all these past two decades, pointing to its presumably threatened encirclement by Ashraf Ghani’s Kabul and New Delhi.

More so, because of the assistance and the sanctuary that Kabul has been providing to militants of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

India is also presumed to be funding and equipping the TTP, though New Delhi has denied the charge.

But having vowed to be guided now by geo-economics rather geopolitics in the framing of its public policy Pakistan, would perhaps find it more profitable, both economically as well as diplomatically than helping Afghan Taliban with men and material in their bid to capture Kabul, to seriously consider Washington’s renewed offer to help establish the so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs)—duty-free export zones along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

This offer was made to the two countries soon after the declaration of global war against terror following the 9/11 tragedy.

But it could not be translated into reality as relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the one hand and on the other between Pakistan and the US fell victim to misunderstandings over what was considered by the US and Afghanistan the double-faced policy of Islamabad that helped facilitate the creation of safe havens for Afghan Taliban in the now defunct Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan, especially Quetta.

This had resulted in the misuse of the border region by both Pakistan and Afghanistan against each other and the US continuingly challenging Pakistan for ‘doing more’ in relations to its commitment in participating in the war on terror.

For an area to be designated as an ROZ, Pakistan and Afghanistan were asked to fulfill certain conditions: Economic reforms: market-based economy; anti-corruption measures; eliminating barriers to US trade and investment; and increasing availability of healthcare and educational opportunities.

National security: no activities that harm US national security interests or support for international terrorism.

Human and labor rights: elimination of human rights abuses and protection of core labor standards.

A recently moved bill for setting up ROZs would allow duty-free export of “textile and apparel goods” to the United States from the region.

The US president will determine which products, from a specified list of textile and apparel goods, will be eligible for duty-free treatment.

These products represent a range of goods commonly imported to the US from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US is already Pakistan’s top export destination, with total shipments to the US growing an impressive 14.8% during the first three quarters of the 2020-21 financial year.

Going by what India is being advised by its well-wishers it is possible that New Delhi might use the opportunity being offered by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to mend fences with Pakistan rather than use it to encircle Pakistan.

In the opinion of MK Bhadrakumar (US could seek ‘expeditionary’ base deal with India—published in Asia Times on April 27, 2021) considering that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires”, India is best advised to steer clear of the Afghan civil war.

According to C. Raja Mohan, the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies (America, the Afghan Tragedy, and the Subcontinent, published in Foreign Policy magazine on April 30, 2021) while the planned withdrawal leaves Afghanistan’s future open, there is now a glimmer of hope that a normalization of relations between India and Pakistan could be part of the regional rearrangement after the US departs.

Also, India’s desire to establish trade and economic relations with Afghanistan and beyond (to Central Asia) over-land via Pakistan could be negotiated by Islamabad as a trade-off with India joining the CPEC for the economic benefit of the entire region.

Both China and India would not have any reservations against such a trade off as the two-way trade between the longstanding economic and strategic rivals, China and India, stood at $77.7 billion last year.

On May 10, COAS Gen. Bajwa travelled to Kabul where he met Ghani and assured him of Pakistan’s support for an inclusive political system in Afghanistan after the US withdraws the last of its troops in September.

On May 12, Ghani made an unusual public statement claiming that Pakistan is no longer in favour of helping to re-establish a Taliban-led Islamic emirate, as existed under its hardline rule between 1996 and 2001.

According to Salman Rafi Sheikh (Why Pakistan is changing its tune on the Taliban—published in Asia Times on May 18, 2021)many in Pakistan’s security establishment believe that a total Taliban victory would galvanize Pakistan-based, Taliban-aligned groups to pursue similar objectives through military means, potentially leading to new instability including in traditional hotbed areas along the Afghan border.

On April 22, only days before Pakistani officials’ meeting with the Taliban in Istanbul, a car-bomb attack on a five-star hotel in Quetta killed at least four and injured 15 others.

In another attack on April 29, another motorcycle bomb attack hit Quetta, killing a policeman and injuring several others. TTP claimed both attacks.

That potent threat, some suggest, is driving Pakistan to redefine its relations with Kabul and rethink its post-US troop withdrawal position in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Beijing is wary of the civil war scenarios in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, including the potential for militant activity to spill over into China’s sensitive Xinjiang province.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.