The forever war no more ? | By M Ziauddin

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The forever war no more ?


NOW that the US president Joe Biden has given the time table for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the world is worried about how things would shape up in the war-torn country between May 1 and September 11.

Pakistan in particular is more worried. It does not wish to see a repeat of what had happened following the defeat of the Soviet troops at the hands of the Afghan Mujahideens in 1987.

Pakistan had to bear the major burden of the aftermath as the victorious US which then did not have its boots on ground simply vanished as if in thin air.

The legacy of the Obama years likely continues now to weigh heavily, and not just on the issue of Afghanistan and safe havens for the Haqqani network in Pakistan, which became a sticking point in the relationship during Biden’s time as vice president.

The Navy Seal raid on Abbottabad in May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden marked a low point during those years.

For Pakistan, this raised the issue of sovereignty. For America, the episode laid bare a greater issue: that it could not trust Pakistan, and the Obama administration’s relationship with the country never recovered from this.

(Pakistanis have their own grievances from that year, when a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, and a NATO attack in November ‘accidentally’ killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.)

In a report on global threats issued Tuesday, the US intelligence analysts warned that the Taliban believe they can successfully use force to shape the political reality on the ground.

“Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory,” according to the report from the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Afghan security forces “remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” the report said.

“The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield,” it added, cautioning that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

But the report is consistent with previous intelligence assessments that have likewise warned the Afghan government forces are vulnerable and could fall without persistent support from the US and its allies.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned the Defense Department’s inspector general in January that negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were unlikely to lead to any meaningful reduction in violence.

DIA analysts also cautioned that it seemed as though Taliban leadership was intent on securing a US withdrawal so it could seek a decisive victory over the Afghan government.

More recently, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan were questioned in a report released last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Concerns remain, as well, that terror groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State continue to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and see the idea of a peace deal and a U.S. withdrawal as an opportunity.

Al-Qaida, while weakened, remains entrenched within the Taliban’s command structures in Afghanistan, according to DIA analysis, while Taliban pressure on the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, has eased, allowing it to regroup and retrench.

On Tuesday, a senior US administration official sought to allay some of the concerns about al-Qaida and IS.

“In coordination with our Afghan partners and with other allies, we will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat to the homeland,” the US official added.

“We can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban.”

“Afghanistan is more dependent on international support than ever before,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned during a virtual talk last month, noting that in addition to US and NATO troops, Afghan forces are reliant upon thousands of trainers and contractors.

Retired U.S. General and former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus has also warned that pulling out U.S. troops “could prove quite catastrophic.”

“We shouldn’t be so U.S.-centric as to think that just by withdrawing our forces that the war ends,” Petraeus told VOA’s Press Conference USA on April 6.

“We should have a sustained, sustainable commitment to that country and enable the Afghan security forces and key institutions in their struggle with the insurgents who are eroding the security.”

US President Joe Biden warned the Taliban on Wednesday he would hold them accountable on Afghanistan after the US exit and pressed nations, including Pakistan, to play supportive roles.

“We will ask other countries in the region to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India and Turkey.”

Earlier, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, in a telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, said that Pakistan would always support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process based on consensus of all stakeholders.

The dilemma is that the US wants more from Pakistan on Afghanistan, including to try to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire.

Pakistan insists that it is doing all that it can, that it has already done a lot by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, and that there are real limits to its leverage over the group.

There is truth to those limits, given that the Taliban has evolved away from Pakistani control since the 1990s, and Pakistan’s influence over Taliban field commanders, in particular, may be a lot less than US imagines.

Across recent US administrations, of course, the thinking has been that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban (including sanctuaries for the group in Pakistan) caused the United States to lose the war in Afghanistan. The two countries continue to see past each other, bedeviling the relationship.

Indeed, in his recent Washington Post column, Fareed Zakria pointedly recalled that the Taliban had enjoyed a haven in Pakistan and received help from that country’s military.

“It is difficult to think of a single case in history in which an insurgency was defeated when it had a sanctuary across the border.”

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