Analysts seriously warn that getting out of Afghanistan without an intra-Afghan settlement would be akin to a more brutal civil war there and greater instability for not only Afghanistan, but also the entire neighbourhood.…writes Rifan Ahmed Khan
Grave, all-round apprehensions are being expressed in serious quarters as Pakistan emerges as a key player in any resolution of the Afghan imbroglio caused by the decision of the US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw while he is in office, probably in time for his seeking a re-election in November 2020.
Given its past record of hunting with the American hounds and running with the Taliban heir, Pakistan’s role is suspect in all quarters, including at home where discerning analysts are doubtful whether the US withdrawal and even the likely seizure of power by the Taliban that Pakistan has hosted for long would lead to 1) return of the half-a-million refugees, 2) end cross-border militancy and terrorism and 3) improvement in Pakistan’s edgy political and economic ties with a landlocked Afghanistan that depends heavily on access to goods from Pakistan.
On the other hand, some Pakistani analyst think Islamabad is playing a very smart game in the way it is holding on to the Taliban and releasing some key ones, like Mullah Baradar from its jail to participate in the talks. Officially, of course, Pakistan denies that any Taliban leader lives on its soil.
For any long-term resolution, there are doubts whether an agreement between US and Taliban would allow for withdrawal of foreign forces. It would not guarantee peace in Afghanistan as long as an internal settlement between the Taliban, Pashtun and other ethnicities is not reached. The unstated part, but a probability when Pakistan played the Big Brother to the Taliban during 1995-2001, is the Pakistani military boots taking up key positions in Afghanistan.
Analysts seriously warn that getting out of Afghanistan without an intra-Afghan settlement would be akin to a more brutal civil war there and greater instability for not only Afghanistan, but also the entire neighbourhood.
Serious doubts are expressed in the US, not just by the opposition Democrats, but also by those who quit the Trump administration to protest against the move and by those who have served in Afghanistan since 2002. Among the last lot is Ambassador Crocker who has called it “a total surrender” by the US. The Democrats – although Obama had vowed, but failed to withdraw, are afraid that Trump may hastily move out and make it his election card, whipping up a nationalistic frenzy of having ‘saved’ American lives.
For now, outbursts of frustration and helplessness and warnings have come from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who has pointed to Pakistan’s perennially suspect role in playing both sides and hosting the Afghan Taliban on its territory as “strategic assets”, while flatly denying their presence.
Ghani told Reuters news agency in Kabul on January 30 that while “key to peace is in Afghanistan,” the “keys to war are in Islamabad, Quetta, Rawalpindi”.
Ghani was clearly accusing that Pakistan is a safe haven for cross-border militant activities.
Ghani made the remarks as US peace negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad visited Kabul for consultations on his progress in talks with the Taliban.
Ghani also questioned the religious legitimacy of the Taliban, who have repeatedly refused to hold direct peace talks with the Afghan government.
“If the Afghan government is illegitimate, so where does the Taliban get their legitimacy from?” he said. “Islamic scholars in Makkah and Indonesia said that suicide attacks and killing of civilians does not have a legitimacy… so where is the source of Taliban’s legitimacy?” he asked.
As for the US, its Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats has in his assessment accused Pakistan of aiding large-scale Taliban attacks and “recalcitrance in dealing with militant groups”.
In a public testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Coats predicted that in the coming year, “militant groups in Pakistan will continue to take advantage of their safe haven there to plan and conduct attacks in neighbouring countries and possibly beyond.”
Coats’ report holds Pakistan responsible for supporting and providing terrorists safe haven “to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including against US interests”. It also accuses Islamabad of “using some groups as policy tools and confronting only the militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan”.
The report claims that Pakistan’s “narrow approach to counter-terrorism cooperation […] almost certainly will frustrate US counter-terrorism efforts against the Taliban”.
Pakistan has rejected the charge, warning that this would ‘harm’ US-Pak relations.
The Coats report predicts that neither the Taliban nor Kabul will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in 2019 “if coalition support remains at current levels”.
Within Pakistan, there is sense of cautious jubilation that after decades of hosting the Afghan refugees and through ups and downs, playing both sides of the Afghan drum, Islamabad has again come into reckoning.
In his latest editorial, The Friday Times editor Najam Sethi reveals that after accusing Pakistan of “double dealing” and worse, the Trump administration, that needs Pakistan badly, has been bailing it out of the financial crisis by arranging $ 12 billion through common allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At some stage, the US would help soften IMF’s negative approach to Pakistan’s desperate bid to secure a bail-out package.
This, Sethi says, is “for its help in bringing the Taliban to the table and leaning on them to facilitate a respectable and orderly exit from Afghanistan in the next 18 months.”
He points to the extremely limited nature of the agreement reached so far between the US and the Taliban. Months of negotiations between the Taliban and Americans have yielded only two points of agreement: the Americans will fully withdraw from Afghanistan in 18 months and the Taliban will not in future allow Al-Qaeda, Daesh or any such terrorist footprint in their country to threaten US/Western interests anywhere.
“It may be recalled that precisely such an agreement was spurned by the Americans in 2001 before the bombing when they insisted that Osama bin Laden be handed over to them by the Taliban government instead of being given safe passage to a third country as proposed by Pakistan.”
Many American, Indian and other independent analysts have pointed out that once the US withdraws from Afghanistan, and given the rising Chinese profile in the region, there will be little scope and power left with the US to enforce these terms.