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What US withdrawal means for the region Bharat Shakti 08 May 2021
The US withdrawal, as announced by President Joe Biden, commenced on 01 May. The US will complete it by 11 Sept this year. It is currently handing over its bases and responsibility to the Afghan National Army. Simultaneously, the Taliban have launched their summer offensive. This is currently being stalled. As per a report in The Dawn of 05 May, ‘government forces killed more than 100 Taliban fighters in Helmand when the militants attacked. 22 Al Qaeda fighters from Pakistan were also killed in the fighting, the ministry claimed.’ The report added, ‘The enemy has now lost all the areas it had captured and suffered heavy casualties.’[i]
Announcing the withdrawal, Biden had stated, ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.’ NATO backed it with a similar statement of withdrawing its forces alongside the US. [ii]
In his speech, Biden stated that the US would hold the Taliban accountable for its commitments. He commented, ‘We will hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the US or its allies from Afghan soil. The Afghan government has made that commitment to us as well.’[iii] His words implied that Afghanistan may, in the future, have either a Taliban or a democratic government or maybe even an inclusive government. In other words, while he was hoping, but was aware that the Taliban and Afghan government may not come to any agreement in the interim period and the nation could plunge into a civil war.
In Kabul, President Ghani stated that Afghanistan supports US withdrawal. He tweeted, ‘The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the US decision, and we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition.’ He added, ‘Afghanistan’s proud security and defence forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful.’[iv] Ghani implied that the Afghan government envisages a difficult period post the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces and expects a civil war breaking out. As per the Long War Journal, the Taliban control 19% of the districts, while the government 32%. The rest remains contested.[v] The Afghan forces are currently better trained and equipped.
Within the US there were few supporters, while majority disagreed with Biden’s decision. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming stated, ‘Wars don’t end when one side abandons the fight. Withdrawing our forces will only embolden the very jihadists who attacked our homeland on that day 20 years ago.’[vi] Within the US there is a belief that the withdrawal is akin to Vietnam where Saigon, was overrun by the North Vietnamese within four months.
Senator Lindsey Graham condemned it as ‘dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous,’ while Senate Armed Services Committee member, Jim Inhofe, termed it as ‘outrageous.’[vii] Senior Republican Party leader Mitch McConnell criticised it stating, ‘Precipitously withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished, an abdication of American leadership,’[viii] The US military was seeking a ‘conditioned based’ withdrawal implying that they could re-engage in case the government in Kabul came under pressure of the Taliban without an agreement being reached.[ix] Biden was unwilling, just wanting to get out of the mess.
Historically, wherever the US has intervened and left, there has been a mess. Vietnam, Iraq and Libya are recent examples. Afghanistan may possibly be the next.
The Taliban are terming it as a victory. Haji Hikmat, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Balkh district in Afghanistan stated to the BBC, ‘we have won the war and America has lost.’ He added, ‘We are ready for anything. We are totally prepared for peace, and we are fully prepared for jihad.’[x] The Taliban statement read, ‘The Islamic Emirate will under no circumstance ever relent on complete independence and establishment of a pure Islamic system and remain committed to a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem following the complete and certain end of occupation.’[xi] The Taliban were aware that the US and NATO forces would withdraw at some stage leaving the country to its fate.
The difference between Biden and Trump, both of whom had announced dates of withdrawal was that Trump had made it conditional to the Taliban not sheltering the al Qaeda and agreeing to a dialogue on power sharing. Biden has laid down no such criteria thus moving the advantage to the Taliban. With the Taliban refusing to attend any talks, despite intense pressure from Pakistan, any possibility of a deal or a power sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government appears remote.[xii]
There are many of the opinion that the Afghan government would fall shortly after the US and NATO withdrawal, as had happened post the Soviet withdrawal. However, the rebels overran Kabul once the USSR collapsed, and military and financial support dried up.[xiii] During that period, the nation was with the Taliban and against the government in Kabul due to it backing Russia, whom they considered invaders. Currently most of Afghanistan is either neutral or supports freedom which they have enjoyed for the past two decades. The popularity of the Taliban has waned. Hence, it would be forced to fight its way into Kabul. Another reason why it refuses to face the ballot.
The difference in perceptions on the future of the country’s governance between the Afghan government and the Taliban will ensure that violence will prevail. Ghani seeks a ceasefire followed by elections, while the Taliban does not believe in elections and desires an Islamic state governed by religious leaders and has no intention of sharing power.
Biden had stated in his speech, ‘We will ask other countries in the region to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India and Turkey.’[xiv] Though he did not mention Iran, it will remain a major player. These were not words without reason. Afghanistan’s neighbours would gain or lose in case violence persists as also on who governs the country.
For Turkey, an entry into Afghanistan would open doors for greater engagement in the region including with Central Asian Republics (CAR). It would enhance its status in its power struggle with Saudi Arabia on control over the OIC. It is with this assessment that it was willing to sponsor a series of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan leadership on its soil.
Russia and China have their own concerns. There is a possibility of the re-emergence of terrorist groups supporting fundamentalists in CAR, bordering Russia, and Xinjiang, impacting security in both nations. Both are also hoping for a hold on the untapped resources of Afghanistan, including large reserves of Titanium, as also exploiting its geostrategic location. General Rawat had stated in the Raisina Dialogue last week, ‘Afghanistan is a nation which is rich in resources, and there are nations that tend to exploit resources for their own benefit without the benefit going to the community of that nation.’[xv] The US unilateral withdrawal is also sweet revenge for Russia.
For China, insecurity in Afghanistan could lead to greater targeting of the CPEC, which remains an added concern. With the Pak army being deeply involved along the Pak Afghan border, the CPEC becomes more vulnerable for Baluch fighters. Hence, there are news reports of China willing to send in peacekeepers to Afghanistan.[xvi] For Iran, it is security of its Shia Hazara’s who dominate the region close to the Afghanistan-Iran border. Assaults on them would place Iran in a difficult situation.
Pakistan hopes that the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul will push Indian influence away, as India was close to the democratic government in Kabul, which accused Pak of backing the Taliban. However, the Taliban will not have an easy route. Its loyalty to Pak is also under question. The longer the civil war persists the greater would be the mass flow of refugees into a cash strapped Pakistan. It could also result in the TTP enhancing its attacks on Pak’s security forces as it has sworn to revenge Pak army’s attacks on Pashtuns. The Baluch freedom fighters would follow on similar lines. They would be emboldened with growing insecurity in Afghanistan and preoccupation of Pak forces.
If Pakistan thinks it can control terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, it is a mistake. Seth Jones of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, stated, ‘It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Pakistan to control the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan as the country spirals into a civil war. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups are already operating in Afghanistan. There is no way Pakistan can control this hodgepodge of groups, which have different interests, leaders, and goals.’[xvii] In other words, the pressure would build on Pak, rather than recede. Hence, its desire for peace with India along the LoC is essential, not a choice.
To prevent future refugees from overwhelming the country Pakistan has begun the process of verifying the data of its already registered 1.4 million refugees.[xviii] As per reports, thousands are already fleeing Helmund where fighting has commenced.[xix] This flow would soon be in millions swamping Pak. With the Taliban being given audience and support by China, Russia and Iran, it remains to be seen whether they would continue being willingly controlled by Pak. They have displayed an independent streak on many occasions and with increased global acceptance, it would be more pronounced.
However, the influence of the Taliban religious leadership, on the common Pakistani, as a result of their assumed victory over the US, would enhance the power of religious fundamentalists in Pak, adding to its internal security problems. It would lead to growing demands for Pak to convert into a similar Islamic state ruled by clerics. The recent incident of the TLP bringing the country to a standstill on its demands not being met, would then appear to be a small hiccup.
Excerpts from an interview in The Week, with Mohammed Umer Daudzai, President Ghani’s special envoy for Pakistan include, ‘Pakistan is concerned about the full-fledged return of the Taliban. There is fear about the domino effect it will have on Pakistan. Pakistan is worried about a Taliban regime in Kabul. Anti-Pakistani terrorist groups may take shelter in empty spaces in Afghanistan and may try and hurt Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region. The Taliban is no longer as loyal to Pakistan as it used to be. It is expanding its relationship with Russia, Iran and the Arab countries.’ He added, ‘The Taliban had contacted India 24 times, but they did not reply. I suggested giving the group a positive reply when it contacts them for the 25th time.’[xx]
A lot has been stated that India will soon be out of the country, its influence restricted and its investments totalling USD 3 Billion and immense goodwill gained over the years ignored. In the past two decades, India has trained the bulk of the Afghan officer cadre as also provided education scholarships to Afghanis, creating an educated pool, which could form the bureaucratic base in any future governance. Thus, Indian soft power influence would always remain. The Taliban will need an alternate routes for aid and support, other than Karachi. It may have to lean on Iran and hence Chabahar. However, time would determine how the relations would evolve.
There are also fears in some circles that Afghan mercenaries may be moved into Kashmir. These appear unfounded. For Pak to resort to such action, the current ceasefire must be broken. If that happens and India enhances military action, Pak will face two active frontiers, which are beyond its military and economic capability. However, time would be the best determinant. India must continue monitoring the situation.
Most important for all nations with stakes in the future of Afghanistan is to invest in developing capabilities of the Afghan armed forces. A capable Afghan armed force, with airpower support, can compel the Taliban to negotiate while stopping its run towards Kabul. This could result in the nation witnessing peace and talks leading to an inclusive government with/without elections. While the US may withdraw, it must leave doors open for provision of air support to the Afghan forces. Simultaneously, is the need to impress on Pakistan that democracy in Afghanistan, rather than a Taliban run Islamic state is largely for its own good.