US pullout from Afghanistan a test for Pakistan, other neighbours

Published May 7, 2021
This file photo shows US State Secretary Antony Blinken. — Reuters/File
This file photo shows US State Secretary Antony Blinken. — Reuters/File

The United States wants to "stay in the game" in Afghanistan and sees a role for Pakistan within this game. However, it wants Islamabad to realise that it is in its own interest to do so.

This is how US State Secretary Antony Blinken outlined his strategy for maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan after September 11, 2021, when all US and Nato forces would have moved out of the war-ravaged country.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, the chief US diplomat made it clear that the US was only withdrawing its troops from the country and was not leaving Afghanistan.

“We’re pulling our forces out of Afghanistan, we are not withdrawing. We are not leaving. We are remaining deeply engaged when it comes to supporting Afghanistan — economically, development assistance, humanitarian, supporting its security forces,” he said. “We’re staying in the game.”

The interviewer reminded him that such a deep involvement would require continued support from Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan, which has the shortest, all-season supply route to Afghanistan.

Read: India's military czar concerned about US pullout from Afghanistan

“Does not having to rely on Pakistan for a supply chain essentially change the dynamics, change what’s possible for you when it comes to influence in Afghanistan?” the interviewer asked.

Secretary Blinken, however, argued that the Biden administration’s plan to withdraw all foreign troops by Sept 11 would be an eye-opener for all "free riders" in the neighbourhood.

“The decision has concentrated the minds of pretty much everyone inside and outside of Afghanistan and the region as well. For the last 20 years, they’ve been — to some extent — free riders on us, on Nato, on our partners,” he said.

He was referring to a popular perception in the US that American and Nato troops were being killed in Afghanistan, while its neighbours benefitted from their presence without making any contribution.

“They now have to decide, including Pakistan, where their interests lie, and, if they have influence, how to use it,” he said.

“I don’t think a single neighbour of Afghanistan’s, starting with Pakistan, has an interest in the country winding up in a civil war, because that would produce a massive refugee flow [to Pakistan].”

Other countries too “would be concerned about the export of extremism, of drugs, et cetera,” he added.

“So, one aspect of [the pullout of troops] is that countries may now have to really step up and use the influence that they have to advance their interests. And that influence, I think, would be in the direction of trying to keep Afghanistan on a positive path.”

In another interview to Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, Blinken said that the troop pullout would also force the Taliban and the Kabul government to make their own calculations about what suits them.

“Everyone has to now make some new calculations. That starts with the Taliban. It has to decide whether it wants to plunge the country back into a civil war, or whether it wants some kind of recognition and to be an accepted actor in the international community,” he said.

The US state secretary acknowledged that the withdrawal plan has also forced the Biden administration to focus on diplomacy.

“We're trying to see if the Taliban will engage with the Afghan government to try to come to a political resolution of the conflict that’s been going on for so long,” he said.

Asked if America would stand back if the Taliban withdrew the rights of women and girls earned during the last 18 years, Secretary Blinken said: “If any future Afghan state does that, it will be a pariah and it will not have any support from the international community.”

Blinken’s explanation of the US strategy for Afghanistan after the pullout increases pressure on all its neighbours, particularly Pakistan, which has the shortest, all-season supply route to the land-locked country.

Pakistan also has a 2,640 km-long porous border with Afghanistan and strong religious and ethnic links with its citizens. During the war against the Soviets, the US and its allies used this proximity to force the Russians out.

A recent New York Times story recalled that after 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and pushed the Taliban out of Kabul, they used an airbase in Balochistan to attack their targets.

And they may want similar facilities now, for maintaining their grip on Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal.

Madiha Afzal, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, wrote in her recent paper that Pakistan was aware of these developments and the country’s civilian and military leadership were readjusting their focus.

“The new focus recognises that a geo-strategic approach only goes so far, and if Pakistan is to rise on the world stage, that position will have to be predicated on economic growth,” she wrote.

Pakistan, she wrote, was seeking a more broad-based relationship with the US, “one that goes beyond strategic concerns and the war in Afghanistan.”

But Washington “will likely continue to see Pakistan through the prism of countries in its neighbourhood: Afghanistan, India, and China in particular,” she added.

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