The Biden Administration’s announcement of leaving Afghanistan’s troubled soil before September 11 this year has birthed hopes and spawned fears in Pakistan.
Hopes because, finally, US forces will be existing a protracted war in a country that Islamabad shares a long, treacherous border with because of which it has been on the receiving end of all the nasty spillovers — refugees, conflict and endless international pressure to deliver an impossible peace.
Hopes also because with US forces out of the fray, the fundamental causis belli that the anti-US forces have used to continue with their kinetic operations will also disappear. Afghanistan then can, possibly, become more inward-looking and find its own rhyme and reason for finding calm.
Pakistan also hopes that a settled Afghanistan minus the overbearing hand of the US and the red rag it provided to the native Taliban, the opportunities to weave together a regional solution and support structure to Afghanistan’s transition to the next stage — will also become possible.
Hyper-powers have large-size egos and often compress complex ground realities to their own warped sense of right and wrong — never an ideal enabling environment to build realistic peace.
Side by side there are fears too, which unfortunately are more palpable and potent than starry-eyed anticipation of troubles ending with Washington’s military footprint evaporating from Pakistan’s soft underbelly. The first is that the Biden Administration has not yet defined what sort of a toehold it would retain in Afghanistan.
Diplomatic sources in Islamabad are quick to point out that the US pulls its military weight on the ground also on account of contract groups that fight alongside the US army and international forces but are really private recruits.
Call it the Blackwater Arrangement in Afghanistan. Reduction in this large force (reportedly in their thousands) is still an open question. Local forces opposed to the US rule want an empty nest as far the US presence is concerned, which Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, admit is not possible considering that the US will remain engaged one way or the other.
If flush with a sense of victory, the Taliban were to start hitting any sign of US presence on their soil — embassy to military or intelligence bases — the conflict might continue harming the nascent prospects of peace.
Another fear is the sense that the US is leaving behind a massive vacuum because all international forces are also following suit — the in-together-out-together principle. The state-building arrangements — civil bureaucracy, police, para military forces and the military — are totally compromised and demoralised.
Afghanistan has witnessed one of the highest ratios of its soldiers getting killed or defecting to the Taliban in recent years. That means there will be not just a governance dark hole but the centre might collapse at a touch. With the possibility of a civil war ever present in Afghanistan a withered centre will push the ensuing conflict in all directions.
That is something that holds dangerous portents for Pakistan. Regardless of which group is empowered along the borders with Pakistan, fratricidal war has a tendency to blowback across and suck in tribes, groups, and families straddling the official dividing lines.
While Pakistan has been at work on a long project of fencing its border with Afghanistan, that effort remains incomplete. Also, centuries old local wisdom and methods are still very effective to beat the fence. The border remains porous.
Loss of international aid
Drying up of international aid and commitments to development projects that have kept the country going this long is another real concern. Afghanistan literally has no fund generation capacity of its own and relies almost wholly on international help.
The US will be leaving without any desire to look back and pay attention to a place that has cost it trillions of dollars and thousands of lives without any trophies to display for its two decades long stay.
International funding is also being diverted towards other humanitarian causes including fighting Covid and managing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Where would the dough come from to run a broken land? There isn’t any answer available to this core query and no one is willing to even address these genuine apprehensions.
Washington is awash with the relief that president Biden has shown the courage to say the words that his predecessors were either too weak to utter or were forced by their advisers to hold back in favour of prolonging the war. What comes after the withdrawal isn’t really a red dot on the US strategic radar.
Pakistan has to wait and see how the picture pans out. For now contrary to the hype in the western media Islamabad is not in a state of glee now that the US has announced its departure date.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12