The longest war

May 2, 2021

After nearly 20 years, more than 2,300 deaths, and $2 trillion spent, US troops are to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will raise new challenges for not only the country, but also its neighbours, especially Pakistan. Its biggest repercussion could be the possible resurgence of terror networks, including the ISIS and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their affiliates in Pakistan. To counter these threats and challenges, Pakistan will have to implement the National Action Plan more effectively besides engaging the international community, especially the US, the biggest stakeholder in Afghan peace.

President Biden has announced the complete withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan till September 11. NATO forces too will follow the withdrawal plan. Afghanistan’s security will now be the responsibility of the Afghan government and the Taliban alone.

On April 25, the commander of foreign military forces in Afghanistan said that steps were already being taken for a planned withdrawal of troops from the country. Gen Scott Miller said that military bases in foreign forces’ use would be gradually handed over to Afghan forces. “All our forces are now preparing to retrograde. Officially, the notification date will be the 1st of May, but at the same time as we start taking local actions, we have already begun that,” said Miller. “As we retrograde to zero US forces, we will turn over the (military) bases primarily to the (Afghan) Ministry of Defence and other Afghan forces,” he told reporters in the capital, Kabul.

On April 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would focus the minds of “free riders” in the region on their interests in keeping the country stable. “No one has an interest in a renewed civil war in Afghanistan; certainly the Afghan people don’t. Neither do the Afghan government or the Taliban, none of Afghanistan’s neighbours do, neighbours and other countries in the region that have basically been free riders for the last 20 years, as we’ve been engaged there with our NATO allies and partners. Those countries are now going to have to decide, given their interests in a relatively stable Afghanistan, given the influence that they have, whether they’re going to try to use that influence in a way that keeps things within the 40-yard lines. So a lot of people are having their minds concentrated by the President’s decision,” he said.

Earlier, Turkey rescheduled a peace conference after Taliban refused to attend it. The peace talks will now be about the nature of relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Biden administration’s decision marks a historical juncture in US history as the country tries to rid itself of its longest and most expensive war. Pakistan is also going to face a repeat of the 1989 situation when the former USSR left Afghanistan.

Pakistan had invested a lot of its human and security capital in the war against the former USSR and the War on Terror during the last 40 years. Resultantly, it faced violence and extremism. When the war concluded and Russia left Afghanistan, the US abandoned the jihadi networks in Afghanistan, who then started battling each other. Their conflict simmered into Pakistan as various groups in Afghanistan had trained their manpower in Pakistan. Out of those groups, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan were born. In the 1990s, the country saw the worst of sectarian violence.

After the 9/11 attacks, the US launched its War on Terror against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and Pakistan became its frontline ally. This time, it handed over its key air bases to the US and accommodated the US and NATO supplies from its ground routes. The outcome of the decision, proved a nightmare from Pakistan as it suffered and is still suffering terror attacks that target every segment of the society. It has lost tens of thousands of its security officials, political leaders, religious icons and civilians. Pakistan has also suffered attacks on its military headquarters and civilian installations.

What worries Pakistan the most is the possible resurgence of the ISIS, the TTP, Al Qaeda and their affiliates. There have been reports that Al Qaeda has lost control over the terror networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while most of the groups, previously working with Al Qaeda are now working with the ISIS and the TTP. Pakistan has been battling these groups for two decades. 

Then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had admitted this in 2009. During a congressional hearing on the Obama administration’s foreign policy, she acknowledged that the United States, too, had a share in the menace Pakistan faced. In an appearance before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in April 2009, Ms Clinton explained that the militancy in Pakistan was linked to the US-backed proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

She had told the committee, “We can point fingers at the Pakistanis. I did some yesterday frankly. But the problems we face now to some extent we have to take responsibility for, having contributed to it. We also have a history of kind of moving in and out of Pakistan.”

Again, the time has come when the US is ending its war in Afghanistan, though it is present there physically this time. However, the US intent is to have a military base somewhere in the region to keep a check on peace and insurgent groups inside and outside Afghanistan. Pakistan, Tajikistan and Dubai are possible locations.

In any scenario, Pakistan will need constant cooperation from the US and NATO countries for various reasons. If peace works out, Pakistan will be the base camp for reconstruction of Afghanistan. It will also need international support for repatriation of over three million Afghan refugees, settled in Pakistan.

If the peace formula does not work, Afghanistan will again become a battleground for various militant groups, militias and Afghan Forces. Apparently, Afghan National Army is not particularly well-equipped. For them, combating the Taliban, the ISIS and other militias would be an uphill task. In this situation, Pakistan may see another influx of refugees. Pakistan’s fledgling economy cannot bear more refugee burden.

Pakistan and the US have been cooperating with each other to check the movement of terrorists from both sides of the border and were sharing intelligence and conducting Intelligence-based operations (IBOs). After the withdrawal, Pakistan will have to check the movement of the terrorists from either side of Afghan border single-handedly because the Afghan National Army lacks the equipment and manpower to monitor the long border with Pakistan.

What worries Pakistan the most is the possible resurgence of the ISIS, the TTP, Al Qaeda and their affiliates. There have been reports that Al Qaeda has lost control over the terror networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the groups previously working with Al Qaeda are now working with the ISIS and the TTP. Pakistan has been battling these groups for two decades. Credible reports suggest that the ISIS is expanding in Afghanistan from where it is using its affiliated groups like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi Al Almi, Jundullah, Jaishul Adal and Harkatul Ahrar for attacks in Pakistan.

In January 2021, the secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Vladimir Norov told a webinar, “ISIS militants moved to Afghanistan from the Middle East and pose a threat to regional security. According to the SCO regional anti-terrorist structure, the numbers of fighters arriving in northern Afghanistan are growing.”

The ISIS and its affiliated groups have claimed responsibility for several terror attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Norov said that the ISIS uses information and communication technologies in Afghanistan to promote the terrorist ideology, recruit militants and manage networks.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and the ISPR head have pointed out in the past that the ISIS is using Afghan territories to operate against Pakistan. After the US troops’ withdrawal, it will get more space in Afghanistan where it can operate with ease because of loose or no checks. The US will have to work with Pakistan more closely to counter the threat.

The recent remarks of Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US forces in the Middle East and South Asia, during his congressional testimony in Washington perturbed the Foreign Office. The general questioned Pakistan’s commitment to peace in Afghanistan.

After President Biden’s announcement for the withdrawal of troop, this is not an appropriate gesture. Pakistan and the US will have to continue their efforts for eradication of terrorism and terror networks together. The cooperation must continue.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

The longest war