As the Taliban made territorial gains in Afghanistan against the Afghan government, some Pakistanis posted the former director general ISI General Hamid Gul’s TV appearance in a popular late night show a few years ago where he had stated that when history is written, “it will be said that the ISI defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan with the help of the Americans, and it will also be said that the ISI defeated the Americans with the help of the Americans.”
This was followed by an all-round clapping of the patriotic audience. These words of the general seem to be coming true. To most observers it appears that Americans are running away from Afghanistan in a hurry with an incomplete peace deal with the Taliban allowing safe exit to its own troops and disallowing safe havens to any group or entity that could pose a security threat to the US and its allies. The major handicap of the peace agreement was that it was limited to security US interests and never included the Afghan government. Instead, it emboldened the Taliban through a unilateral decision to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners without guarantees on Taliban’s own conduct: conditions on ceasefire, negotiations with the Afghan government and most importantly protection for the people of Afghanistan.
Even if one blames the previous erratic American president for a rushed peace deal, what compelled President Biden to leave Afghanistan in such urgency as he could have renegotiated at least some aspects of the agreement? His administration could have made some effort to build consensus among competing regional powers or institute a better transition plan with the Afghan forces. Why would such an experienced politician risk destabilizing the region again? These are irritating and difficult questions but demand some explanation.
The US-China Great Power Rivalry
An alternate argument being presented by the president himself could be that the American decision was well thought-out based on a consensus within its national security establishment focused on the Chinese strategic threat. Therefore, America’s larger regional policy to contain and disrupt the rise of China through geo-strategy, economic decoupling, trade block formation and by rolling out ‘Build Back Better World’ to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), could explain what the Chinese have termed an “irresponsible troop withdrawal.”
The sudden withdrawal of American forces has intensified challenges for regional players. One can call it an American defeat only if the fire lit by American departure does not lead to blowing up the Afghan powder keg, as Afghanistan is surrounded by countries that are considered part of the oppositional camp led by China and Russia. This includes Iran which recently signed a 25-year strategic agreement with China, and also Pakistan, which has had a transactional relationship with the US but is also considered an all-weather friend of China, hosting the BRI’s China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). If American actions in Syria and Yemen are any indication, then geo-strategic compulsions easily outweigh the risk of re-energized Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups as they have limited reach to target American interests. Instead, a destabilized and warring Afghanistan would provide ample opportunities to counter Iran as well as Pakistan who are not part of the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and US), as Iran is the only Middle Eastern power still standing to counter Israeli hegemony in the region while Pakistan has been fighting a proxy war with India since the late 1980s.
Further, with an understanding that China is hard to beat in the geo-economic sphere and is at least a decade ahead in its China centered global economic integration strategy, the BRI, which eventually leaps into geo-political strength, the continuation of war in Afghanistan with only a fraction of existing costs and without the vulnerability of body bags coming back home seems a good strategy. While this could be done by ensuring that Kabul does not fall which means a stalemate between Afghan Government and the Taliban through the provision of arms, air and drone support. In this, the US would have had ample support from Europe and other countries because these states have spent billions in resurrecting state and civil society institutions in Afghanistan; they may have their own geostrategic concerns and lastly because of public pressure owing to news coming out of Afghanistan in the age of social media which amplifies anti-Taliban narrative. For example, Turkey had offered to secure the Kabul airport possibly to mend fences with the Americans for buying Russian S-400 missile defense system as well as to extend its reach to the eastern edge of Turkic territory. Similarly, a Saudi Arabia hosted ‘Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan’ condemned recent violence in Afghanistan and termed it as not jihad. However, his has not come to pass because of the collapse of the Afghan Government and its army in front of the Taliban offensive.
But even as the Taliban have won militarily, the probability that they will be able to control the whole territory as well as successfully govern a country of 35 million without financial and technical support is questionable, with the possibility of leaving the region in continued instability. This can halt or delay CPEC for a few years as exemplified by the current spike in targeting of Chinese engineers in Dasu and Karachi. Either way, the current Afghan conundrum is a shot in the Chinese court forcing China’s hand at geopolitics in the region before it can capitalize on its geo-economic strategy. Its aim is to expend China’s energy away from BRI and the other geostrategic theatre of South China Sea.
A flurry of diplomatic activity by regional stakeholders particularly neighbors for hosting the Taliban showed both their concern as well as hedging of bets with the emerging powerful actor which now controls all of Afghanistan. There was a split opinion in Iran for hosting the Taliban but Iran wants to ensure that Afghan territory is not used to foment trouble inside Iran by an anti-Iranian political system while asking the Taliban to avoid persecuting the Shia community in Afghanistan. Similarly, China hosted the Taliban after the attack targeting Chinese engineers in Pakistan, calling them a critical military and political force of Afghanistan while getting guarantees that they would “draw a clear line from ETIM (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement) and other terrorist groups, and resolutely and effectively crack down on them.” However, at the same time, China is conducting its first ever military exercise with another country, Russia inside China with the objective of preparedness in the Central Asian region.
Strategic Depth and the Question of Leverage
More than China or Iran though, it is Pakistan which is in the thick of things because it has a long border with Afghanistan inhabited on both sides by the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that leads both the Afghan government as well as the Taliban.
America’s sudden troop pullout can also be seen as a befitting response to Pakistan’s perceived double game of supporting both the Americans and the Taliban over the last two decades. So where “do more” could not work earlier because of American vulnerability of ground troops and the need for logistical support. Without this vulnerability, America can use harsher means to induce Pakistan’s behavioral change through the use of FATF, possible sanctions, changes in the bilateral trading regime and lastly limitations on World Bank and IMF funding. If this still does not change Pakistan’s actions, then Americans can just leave an unstable Afghanistan next door for Pakistan to put out the fire with the help of the Chinese. A lack of even a courtesy phone call from the new American president to Pakistan’s prime minister could be understood in this regard.
Pakistan continues to suffer from reputational crisis and the legacy of its past policies continue to haunt it even though it is accepted that both the Iranian and the Russians have also supported the Taliban against the Americans.
The antagonists, critics and many analysts continue to blame Pakistan for an expanded war in Afghanistan and the internal displacement of thousands, for its perceived support of the Taliban which leaves Pakistan quite vulnerable to international isolation. Despite strong public refutation from Pakistan that it is not a party in the battle for Kabul and wants a negotiated peaceful settlement to the conflict, no one seems to find it credible. The educated Afghans consider Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan with the consequence that ‘Sanction Pakistan’ had been a popular Twitter trend in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover. The Americans, Europeans and even non-Western analysts perceive Pakistan as a supporter of the Taliban. Among Pakistanis, the opinion is no different. Voices close to the security establishment self-congratulate themselves for American departure by sharing Gul’s video and further portraying the Afghan government as Indian assets as oppose to the Taliban as Afghan Mujahideen (fights in the cause of Islam).
The far right publicly supports the Taliban as ideological brothers. Lastly, the Pashtun nationalists who have suffered the most owing to war and destruction of their homeland and to the rise of militant religious actors; the dissidents and liberal leftist voices; blame the Pakistan Army for its continuation of “strategic depth” policy, which looks at Afghanistan through the prism of strategic competition with India, and thus requires a Pakistan-friendly Afghan government even if it means use of militant religious actors for this policy objective.
The Strategic Depth policy was in vogue post the first American withdrawal of the late 1980s and its continuation had a disastrous impact on Pakistani society as it emboldened religious extremists at home at the expense of sectarian harmony, security, heritage, culture and arts, critical thinking, scholarship, women empowerment and lastly investments in industrial development. By the time America entered the region again post 9/11, Pakistan had transformed into a deeply conservative society where the majority looked up to the Taliban and thus even the slight change in state policy to support America in targeting Al-Qaeda (while allowing safe havens to the Taliban), sparked an insurgency as many ideological actors saw this as betrayal on the part of the Pakistani State. The subsequent War on Terror saga took 15 years of death and destruction, cost 70,000+ lives and the loss of another generation in terms of human and economic development, before the state defeated and flushed out anti-state religious militants termed the Tekreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), into Afghanistan. During the same period though, the Afghan Taliban under the leadership of its apex council termed the Quetta Shura, had regrouped and was now a formidable force in Afghanistan, challenging NATO forces and buying time to eventually take on the Afghan government post American withdrawal. Thus, one can argue that two decades of developmental loss in Pakistan was but collateral damage for giving the Afghan Taliban a chance to recapture Afghanistan.
Analysts mostly understand the rise of Taliban as an outcome of resistance to the American imperialist project, the corruption of the Afghan Government and its disconnect with the common especially rural Afghans but also argue that a guerrilla war cannot succeed without a sanctuary available to them in Pakistan. However, even with the provision of safe havens to the Taliban leadership post American intervention which families of Taliban leaders continue to enjoy, the Prime Minister states that Pakistan has exhausted its leverage with the Taliban and few Pakistani analysts argue that Pakistan currently has little leverage with the Taliban as the Taliban already controlled half of Afghan territory before the American departure. The best Pakistan can do is to not take sides in the Afghan conflict, while pushing all sides towards a negotiated settlement. Further, they argue that the TTP resides in contested or ungoverned spaces, making a concrete distinction between the Afghan Taliban and TTP, implicitly arguing that with Afghan Taliban in control, TTP will either lose its safe haven or Pakistan will be in a position to take them out on Afghan soil even though the head of Pakistan’s ISI called then two faces of the same coin. These analysts ignore the UN report that Al-Qaeda continues to operate in 15 districts of Afghanistan which are under Taliban control; that the TTP commander felt confident to give a public interview to CNN as Afghan Taliban make gains across the country; and that ground reports suggest that the Afghan Taliban are being supported by all sorts of militant groups. Lastly, these analysts suggest an Indian nexus with members of the Ashraf Ghani government without critically analyzing why the Taliban are uncompromising with the Afghan government and further refused to meet a high level Indian delegation even as they met all other large regional actors. This at least suggests a certain level of leverage that Pakistan enjoys with the Taliban as astute Taliban diplomats seem to have an understanding of Pakistan’s red line.
This article is the first in a two-part series on the prospects of peace in Afghanistan.