The Afghanistan blues | By M Ziauddin


The Afghanistan blues

PAKISTAN is worried about Afghanistan. These worries are getting ever more serious with the passing of each day as the US troop withdrawal is taking place at a fast pace with completion likely to be achieved much earlier than the September 11 deadline. Meanwhile, violence in Afghanistan is escalating by the day.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has already warned of resulting turmoil a day after Washington said almost half of U.S. troops and equipment had been sent home or destroyed since the drawdown formally began on May 1.

The withdrawal is the outcome of a February 2020 deal the U.S. negotiated with the Afghan Taliban, which is waging a deadly insurgency against the internationally backed Kabul government.

“It is very important for Afghanistan to have a political settlement and stability when the Americans leave and a government with consensus is established that could prevent the country from descending into anarchy,” Khan said.

“We are concerned that when the Americans leave, and there is no political settlement, a situation may arise similar to the aftermath of the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, which will be detrimental to Pakistan and other neighbouring countries,” Khan said.

The prime minister also said Pakistan fears terrorism will rise without a political settlement.

Islamabad maintains that anti-state militants have taken refuge in Afghan territory after fleeing Pakistani security operations and continue to plot cross-border terrorist attacks from there.

For its part, the Kabul government accuses Pakistan of covertly supporting the Taliban and allowing insurgent leaders to direct violence inside Afghanistan, allegations Pakistani officials deny.

The allegations and counter-allegations are at the centre of long-running tensions and suspicions between the two countries that share nearly a 2,600-kilometer border.

PM Khan in a recent interview has reassured the people of Afghanistan that his country was no more looking for strategic depth in the war torn neighbour that it would not be interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and that from now on would deal with only the legitimate government in Kabul.

According to Salman Rafi Sheikh (Why Pakistan is changing its tune on the Taliban published in Asia week on May 28, 2021) Islamabad no longer favours a Taliban total victory in Afghanistan as it seeks to balance its US and China relations.

“In a strategic shift, Pakistan’s security establishment appears to see more geopolitical upside to an inclusive rather than Taliban-dominated Afghan government in Kabul when US troops fully withdraw by 11 September.

“Importantly, Pakistan’s recalibration is being led by the military establishment, which since the 1980s has been the main player in Afghanistan’s long-running civil wars.

Led by Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan’s top brass has since 2018 conducted its own independent brand of “military diplomacy” under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s hybrid civil-military regime.

“On May 10, 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 hard-line rule between 1996 and 2001.

“In a televised speech after Eid-ul-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramazan Ghani said, Pakistan’s army, in utter clarity, announced that the revival of Islamic emirate is not in Pakistan’s national interest.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Madiha Afzal, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.”

in one of her recent articles (What the Biden administration’s narrative on Afghanistan gets wrong, published on 01 June 2021 in The Washington Post) said, in announcing an unconditional withdrawal, President Biden has made the situation worse by throwing out the minimal conditions US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had negotiated under the Trump administration.

“The refrain from the Biden administration is that the United States is not abandoning Afghanistan, that it will aim to do right by Afghan women and girls, and that it will try to nudge the Taliban and Kabul toward a peace deal using a diplomatic tool kit.

But the narrative ignores much of the reality on the ground. On May 8, at least 90 people, many of them schoolgirls, were killed in a horrific terrorist attack outside a high school in Kabul.

The Taliban denied responsibility but has increased attacks across Afghanistan. The fighting between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban has intensified in various cities; in other district centers, Afghan forces have surrendered to the Taliban.

“Afghanistan almost certainly seems headed for greater violence, with embassies rapidly reducing their presence or shutting down altogether due to security concerns, as the Australian embassy recently announced.

One can imagine how tone-deaf a “mission accomplished” narrative sounds to Afghans living this reality.

“The US choice came with costs attached to each decision. With staying, the cost was potential US troop casualties and a fear that things would not change on the ground. With leaving comes the cost of a deeper conflict in Afghanistan and a backsliding of progress made there over the past two decades.

In many ways, the costs of staying seem shorter-term and borne by the United States, while the costs of leaving will be predominantly borne by Afghans over a longer time horizon.

Yet, even if those costs seem remote now, history tells us that they will be blamed on the United States.”

According to the latest situation report the Kabul government still controls 50 per cent of the country while Taliban holds sway over 30 per cent and the contest between the two for the rest of the 20 per cent is getting fiercer with government troops clearly on the run.

Pakistan fears if warring parties in Afghanistan fail to reach a peace arrangement, “anarchy” will erupt in the turmoil-hit neighbour after the withdrawal of the United States and allied troops, threatening regional stability.

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

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