While the US has announced that it is planning on leaving Afghanistan by September, there still seems to be a great degree of conflict and uncertainty surrounding the region. Pakistan is caught in the middle not only as one of the US’s former allies in the so-called War on Terror, but also through its position as a mediator for peace in the region. In 1996, Kabul was taken by the Taliban in a blitz offensive, which was then followed by the declaration of the establishment of an Islamic emirate headed by Mullah Omar. Then came two decades of a US-led, NATO military presence in Afghanistan – first to defeat Al Qaeda, which took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on American soil, and then to establish governments friendly to the West.
During the war, the US reportedly spent a trillion dollars and took heavy military casualties. An untold number of Afghans, including innocent civilians, lost their lives in the conflict. And while it appears that the war and US intervention are coming to a close, the country seems to be accelerating towards another bloody conflict. The Taliban, emboldened by the departure of US troops and security forces, are likely planning an insurgency to make battlefield gains, leading to a stagnation of the prospective peace talks. Some fear that once foreign forces are gone, Afghanistan will dive deeper into civil war. Though degraded, an Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State militant network also lurks. Certainly looking forward to the end of the two-decade long NATO mission, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC that any foreign troops left in Afghanistan after NATO’s September withdrawal deadline will be at risk as occupiers.
Gen Frank McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, will retain authority until September to defend Afghan forces against the Taliban. Moreover, the US has stated that it has the authority to conduct strikes against Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, if they threaten the US homeland. As such, it does not seem like the civil war in the region will have a clear-cut ending of conflicts like World War I or II. It will more likely play out in a manner similar to the Vietnam War. Though US troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the war did not achieve closure until the fall of Saigon two years later. Similarly, convoys of US troops drove out of Iraq in 2011 – a ceremony that marked their final departure. But just three years later, American troops were back to rebuild Iraqi forces that collapsed under attacks by militants of the Islamic State.
While Pakistan has played a significant role as a facilitator of peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government, the rapid withdrawal of troops has led to a wave of new Taliban moves. It may also sabotage the gains that Pakistan has so far made in its attempts to facilitate the Taliban’s return to Kabul through power-sharing arrangements. A report titled Pakistan: Shoring Up Afghanistan’s Peace Process, compiled by a think-tank known as the International Crisis Group, warned that any further delays or issues in the Afghan Peace Process could sour Islamabad’s relations with Kabul and Washington: “Further instability or Taliban gains in Afghanistan could embolden Pakistani militants aligned with their Afghan counterparts, deepening insecurity in Pakistan.”
The report urges Islamabad to reach out to Kabul to reduce mistrust, adding that Pakistan should use its access and leverage with the Taliban to press the insurgents to reduce violence and negotiate a compromise on power-sharing arrangements with other Afghan stakeholders. It notes a few key factors: Pakistan’s role in the peace process, which began on September 12, 2020, may very well be based on the agenda of obtaining its preferred outcome – the inclusion of the Taliban in power-sharing arrangements. Moreover, since the beginning of the peace talks in Doha, Pakistan has emphasised the need to focus on an Afghan-led solution based on diplomacy and not military force.
However, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all forces by September 11 of this year has accelerated the timeline for these peace talks, and put more pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan must now persuade, through clout or other means, the Taliban shura to break the logjam in the peace talks by reducing violence and moderating demands for Islamic governance.
Pakistan is clearly preparing itself for its future role as well. On June 30, Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasised that the country might partner with the US in peace, but it would never do so in war again. “The US was defeated in Afghanistan and they tried to blame their defeat on us,” the PM said in his wide-ranging address to the National Assembly. “We have decided to not compromise on the country’s sovereignty,” he maintained. He said that though the US was trying to force Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, “we do not wish for strategic depth in Afghanistan and we will respect the decision of the Afghanis.”
The Parliamentary Committee on National Security was briefed by director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and other high-ranking officials at the Parliament House on developments in Afghanistan and matters of national security on the same day. However, the matters discussed in the session were not made available to the public. On July 4, Prime Minister Imran Khan held a telephonic conversation with president-elect Seyed Ebrahim Raisi of Iran. In an official press release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, they “emphasised the need to continue facilitating an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned inclusive political settlement.”
This conflict has presented itself as one of competing narratives. While there were more news briefings and updates during the start of the war, those briefings have now dwindled. The role of the media has been contentious and uncertain. Take, for example, the response to the October 22 strike in Takhar province, which signalled a shift in tactics by President Ashraf Ghani’s administration: an overt declaration of its willingness to suppress and deny information on the deaths of innocent people. The media could play a part in pushing Afghanistan towards being a bastion of peace and democracy, or at the very least boost the morale of those trapped in the conflict. But, it has also provided leverage to the Taliban, who have been quick to take advantage of the attention they are attracting on the world stage.
The Pakistani media has often used the Afghan peace process as a means to portray Pakistan as a democratic force – one that has political sway. It has often used the attention on the Afghan crisis to draw the international community’s eyes to the Kashmir issue as well. The Taliban, to a degree, flourish through the media reports of their attacks, using it as a means to display power as well as attracting more followers, who may believe them to be better suited to lead the country. The Kabul government, on the other hand, has been unwilling to broadcast its errors and has attempted to control the flow of information since the airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the American media has predominantly been split into two stances: A concerned forward look at the possibility of the return of terrorism to the region, under-laid with a subtle, if sharp, chiding of the fact that the Afghan leadership did not take the idea of a US withdrawal seriously enough. Or, a more reproaching perspective, which more assuredly expects terrorism to return and places the blame for the ensuing violence on the US president.
Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on July 4, warned that Biden would be held responsible for the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“When we fully withdraw, the devastation, and the killings, and women, humanitarian crises, fleeing across the border of Pakistan – President Biden’s going to own these ugly images,” the Texas Republican said in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
Given the shrinking size of Ghani’s administration, which has dwindled to Ghani himself and a few close aides, and the fact that the Taliban’s recent capture of a key district in southern Kandahar province has led to their alleged control of about a quarter of the country’s nearly 400 districts, the potential outcomes of the situation look grim – despite the US and Pakistan’s stances on the matter of power-sharing. It is likely that a civil war will take place, and the Taliban will be able to take charge of the country. Perhaps, the US will attempt to install a regime prior to September 11, hoping to stabilise the region for the short-term future, without truly removing the Taliban’s primary motivation for its insurgent tactics. Pakistan, whose main concerns seem to be strengthening its own borders and establishing some working dynamic with the emerging Afghanistan, while attempting to remain neutral through constant reminders of letting Afghanistan make its internal choice and keeping away from “strategic depth”, might want to make sure it can maintain good relations with whoever ends up in charge of the region.
The writer is the author of a short story anthology, Encounters, and a
screenwriter for the film Parchayee