Monday September 20, 2021

Reading the reality

After 20 years of conflict and nation-building efforts, the US is now on its way out of Afghanistan. With the shutting down of the US military base at Bagram, the deal is more or less done. A war that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks on US soil is coming to a close.

While dislodging the Taliban government took no more than just a few weeks, what came after turned out to be far more complex. President Bush had explicitly stated the US would not get involved in nation-building, which is exactly what it got sucked into, followed by its instinct of trying to set up a democratic structure in a country hardly equipped for it. We once again learned that just because a government is democratically elected it does not mean it can operate as a democracy.

After the military defeat, the Taliban leadership disappeared from the scene, only to emerge periodically to remind us that they were waiting in the wings. Of all the brutality carried out by the Taliban during their reign in the 1990s, nothing was worse than their treatment of women who were often forbidden from leaving their houses or even attending educational institutions.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan was asked – or forced – to join the US campaign against Afghanistan-based anti-West extremists. The US needed Pakistan for logistical support for the war next door. Becoming a part of the US ‘war on terror’, Pakistan often became a target of the extremists’ blowback. Successive leaders of Pakistan have recounted how much the country has suffered in terms of lives and loss to its economy for its role in the US-led war.

Seen from the American perspective, Pakistan was never an enthusiastic supporter of the war against the Taliban. American leaders had a hard time understanding what to them looked like lukewarm support from Pakistan. The Pakistani public, it appears, was always cautious of American motives in Afghanistan, particularly after the Taliban had been driven from power. India's increased role in Afghanistan, encouraged by the US, further complicated Pakistan's response. Even if Pakistani leadership had wanted to see the Taliban replaced, and there are some doubts about that, the Karzai government's pro-India stance further poisoned the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul.

Successive governments in Washington failed to see why Indian influence in Kabul would be anathema to Pakistan. Afghanistan, after all, continues to make territorial claims against Pakistan. India saw in Afghanistan an opportunity to balance out what it considered Pakistani meddling in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Just as the US started to realize Afghanistan could not be pacified militarily, the emerging geopolitical situation made it harder to extricate itself. The well-known surge of American troops in Afghanistan under Obama proved once and for all the futility of nation-building in Afghanistan. Upon taking office as president, Biden wasted no time in putting into motion the exit of all US forces, a plan that had anyhow been announced by his predecessor.

What comes next for Afghanistan? It is hard to predict, but no rosy scenarios come to mind. A low-level war between the Kabul government and the Taliban which had been going on for years, is already heating up. How Pakistan deals with the turmoil next door will have serious consequences for its own peace and security.

In the meantime, one definite casualty of the US withdrawal is the future of US-Pakistan relations. The government in Pakistan has expressed a desire for close relations with the US and even for financial support. Sitting in Washington, it's hard to see how this could happen. Justly or not, Pakistan is seen in the US as the country that didn't fully support US goals in Afghanistan. While it may be unfair to call Pakistan's approach a double game, the country did not do itself any favors with the US by trying to walk a ‘fine line’ when it came to dealing with the Taliban.

At the moment, it is hard to find much support in the US Congress for financial assistance to Pakistan. The thinking in Washington appears to be that there are hardly any areas of strategic consensus between the US and Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

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