Post-withdrawal uncertainties | M Ziauddin


Post-withdrawal uncertainties

THE ‘forever’ war could continue forever even after the last of the US boots had left the wartorn Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of New York’s Twin-Tower tragedy that had triggered a global war on terror.

Going by the way the Afghan Taliban had kept attacking their fellow citizens and Kabul government’s security forces even after having entered into a troop withdrawal deal with the US in February 2020, their refusal to settle contentious issues with the Kabul government through negotiations under the agreed terms of the Doha deal, and their unwillingness to participate in an election or a national government under a Constitution not based on Sharia laws, make it clear that that is what is going to be the fate of Afghanistan—a forever war casualty.

And if that is how the Afghan great game is fated to finally end, then the possibility of Afghan soil being used to threaten the security of countries far and near cannot be ruled out.

That is why Pakistan has joined the United States, China and Russia in urging the Afghan government and the Taliban to ensure that Afghan soil is not used to mount terror attacks across the country’s borders.

The four nations — known as the Extended Troika on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan — are also urging the Afghan government to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts.

They also want the UN Security Council (UNSC) to review the designations of Taliban individuals and entities.

The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a UN-designated terrorist group, has extensively used Afghan soil for launching attacks into Pakistan, including the 2014 Peshawar Army Public School massacre. Pakistan has long urged Afghanistan to stop such cross-border attacks.

The participants reiterated that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process was the only way forward for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Considering the possibility of continued turmoil in Afghanistan and the threat of its spilling over far and wide in the region, the Pentagon is thinking “how to continue to apply pressure with respect to potential counter-terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan. So, we are looking throughout the region in terms of over-the-horizon opportunities.”

US diplomats are expected to be talking to countries in the region where the US could potentially base resources that it could use to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

These basing agreements would allow the US to station its soldiers legally in another country, and, depending on the terms of the agreement, conduct either surveillance or kinetic operations.

The US is seeking more opportunities for “expeditionary basing” in the region. The US might not seek permanent bases because of Iran’s proximity.

In the coming week, the commander of the US Central Command, General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr, is expected to provide Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with options for potential future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Also although the US military is leaving, “we will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”

Meanwhile, speculation is running rife that Washington may seek a new basing agreement with India as it prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

According to MK Bhadrakumar (US could seek ‘expeditionary’ base deal with India—published in Asia Times on April 27, 2021) the issue will be worth watching in the coming months as “from the Indian perspective, what matters most is New Delhi’s involvement, if any, in the US basing arrangements in the region.

The US has a logistics agreement with India, which could facilitate mission-based deployments on Indian bases. “

On April 16, Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib briefed his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval about “what should happen as we prepare for this dialogue” on the transition in Afghanistan with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

On April 19, Blinken had a call with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in which they reaffirmed “the importance of the US-India relationship and cooperation on regional security issues” and “agreed to close and frequent coordination in support of a lasting peace and development for the people of Afghanistan.”

However, in the opinion of Bhadrakumar the bottom line that Washington almost always expected a quid pro quo in its transactional relationships and conceivably, Afghanistan could be the quid pro quo, since vital US interests are at stake, including the prestige of the Biden presidency.
“Aside from India, Blinken has consulted Central Asian countries.

He spoke to his Kazakh and Uzbek counterparts and took a meeting of the so-called ‘C5+1’ (an exclusive format of the US and the five “Stans”) where Afghanistan was the leitmotif (here, here and here).

“However, unlike in 2001 when Moscow helped to secure access to Central Asian bases for the US military to launch its operations in Afghanistan in the downstream of the September 11 attacks, this time around, US-Russia tensions are escalating toward open hostility.

“A report in the US-funded RFERL seemed despondent that the Central Asian states might not get associated with the Pentagon’s and Central Intelligence Agency’s future operations in Afghanistan.

Wherever the CIA goes in the post-Soviet space, the virus of “color revolution” spreads and the Central Asian regimes must be wary of it.

Belarus’ current experience is a stark reminder.” Thus India would probably be the only remaining regional state in Washington’s consideration zone as a potential collaborator.

However, considering that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires, “the calculus of fratricidal wars keeps changing and India is best advised to steer clear of the Afghan civil war. Predicating any policy on the United States’ consistency is risky too.”

Therefore, in the opinion of Bhadrakumar India should never contemplate “a Faustian deal allowing Pentagon basing arrangements on its soil for the upcoming Afghan operations as quid pro quo for raw materials for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Trying to add one more layer of protective cushion against possible export of terror from an Afghanistan in turmoil the US is, seeking to establish duty-free export zones along the Pak-Afghan border.

The proposed trade pockets — known as Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) — would allow duty-free export of “textile and apparel goods” to the United States from the region.

The senators who tabled the proposed bill argued that as the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, “it is imperative that we use all the tools at our disposal to facilitate peaceful reconciliation and a durable political settlement between all parties.”

The ROZs will “encourage businesses in Afghanistan and Pakistan to trade with the United States, creating economic benefits that endure well into the future,” said Senator Young.

Expanding trade with Pakistan will strengthen ties with a key strategic partner and enhance economic development in a region important to US interests.

For an area to be designated as an ROZ, Pakistan and Afghanistan must fulfil 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.

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