As the country’s politics hurtles down a zero-sum trajectory, there are fresh concerns that the situation across the western border may not be too promising either. With Pakistan’s deep engagement in the uncertain Afghan peace process and the expedited schedule of withdrawal by American troops, officials high up in Islamabad’s Red Zone have distilled some important observations and conclusions about the situation in Afghanistan. They are as follows:
The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is expected to complete much before the September 11, 2021 deadline – probably by July 4, which is celebrated as the US Independence Day.
Senior officials in Islamabad have assessed that at this stage the US wants the following: (i) A safe withdrawal of their forces without the Taliban attacking them (ii) A ‘respectable’ withdrawal without a perception of defeat (iii) Safeguarding their ‘investment’ in areas like education, women’s rights etc. (iv) A broad-based political settlement in Kabul leading to an inclusive government; and (v) A sustained commitment to Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of forces.
The US has about twenty bases in the Middle East region and their officials have said they plan to retain some foothold in the region around Afghanistan for counter-terrorism purposes. However, officials in Islamabad say Pakistan is not included in the prospective areas where the US wants military bases, and Washington has also been informed that Pakistan will not entertain any such request if and when made. As per previous agreements, Pakistan will allow its air and land routes for the withdrawing US forces to evacuate their heavy equipment and other logistical supplies.
Red Zone high-ups believe 50 per cent of the area of Afghanistan is currently under the control of the government, 30 per cent under Taliban control and the remaining 20 per cent is hotly contested between the two.
The key actors in Afghanistan today, who can influence what happens in the coming weeks and months, are: (i) Coalition forces (ii) Afghan national security forces (iii) Taliban (iv) International terror outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIS (v) Local militias
Officials say the Taliban are now an internationally recognised entity (especially since the US has initiated direct talks with them). In addition, these officials say the Taliban are, in their assessment, financially self-reliant. All countries in the region are therefore trying to establish some form of relations with them realising that they will be major players in any future Afghan set-up.
As per similar assessments, the Taliban are believed to have around one hundred thousand trained fighters in their ranks. They have also formed a shadow government.
The peace talks have hit an impasse for a number of reasons that officials in Islamabad believe are not easy to resolve. Some of these reasons: (i) Taliban insist all their seven thousand prisoners should be released but the Afghan government says it will not order the release till the Taliban reduce the level of violence (ii) Taliban say they do not want US surveillance aircraft to be flying over their territory but the US maintains these flights will continue (iii) The US says Taliban should break all ties with Al-Qaeda etc and agree to become part of a future Afghan government but the Taliban have flatly refused to participate in any such set-up with President Ashraf Ghani.
Senior officials inside the Red Zone say if the peace process has to advance, Taliban will need to show some flexibility and Ghani will have to act like a statesman instead of pursuing power politics.
Pakistan has made it clear its territory will not be allowed for any operations against Afghanistan. This includes no ‘boots on the ground’ and no drone operations from Pakistani soil.
Officials state they have communicated to all stakeholders in Afghanistan as well as concerned countries that the onus of peace is on the Afghan people and that Pakistan should not be held accountable if the peace process falls apart.
The government of Pakistan is not in favour of any military takeover in Kabul, say these officials.
India has no role in the Afghan peace process. However in the post-conflict era if India wants to invest in its relationship with Afghanistan, that is between New Delhi and Kabul.
Senior officials fear that if a negotiated settlement is not reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban – and the indications are not too promising so far – then there are chances that Afghanistan could slide into yet another civil war. This would have an adverse impact on the region and especially on Pakistan.
This impact on Pakistan could translate into two outcomes: (i) A fresh influx of refugees into Pakistan. This will exacerbate the burden that Pakistan is already bearing due to the very large refugee presence in the country (ii) A civil war in Afghanistan could have a spillover effect and regenerate violence and militancy in the border areas including the erstwhile FATA region as well as in Balochistan. There are genuine fears that the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has found shelter on Afghan soil, could gain fresh traction and attempt to unleash terror on Pakistani soil.
It is a delicate time and the government wants to build a domestic consensus on its policy on Afghanistan. However, this is easier said than done in the politically polarised environment as it exists today. If the situation worsens after the withdrawal of US troops, Pakistan may face a volatile situation that will have a direct impact on all aspects of life, including politics. It may be prudent for the government, and for the establishment that continues to have the dominant role in policy on Afghanistan, to make an extra effort to bring all political stakeholders on board and forge a consensus – howsoever loose – on the core policy to deal with the swiftly evolving situation across the western border. This is a lesson worth learning from the history of the past four decades.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2021