A bill titled ‘Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act’ was recently introduced in the US Senate, seeking sanctions on the Afghan Taliban and the foreign governments including Pakistan that might have supported the Taliban one way or the other. The bill was initiated by 22 (out of 50) Republican, and not Democrat, senators who carry particularistic views on domestic and international politics.
The motives behind this move by the said senators could be more than one. First, they seem to keep themselves and their party in national — if not global — discussions on US foreign policy and its failures in Afghanistan. Also, they wanted to convince the Senate Democrats to support the bill for congressional approval. An overall objective of this exercise is to critically revisit US foreign policy and military strategy in South Asia since 9/11.
To become an effective law, the bill requires support of the party-in-power led by President Joe Biden. The latter played a decisive role to finally withdraw the American military from Afghanistan in a quick manner a few months ago. The US and the Afghan Taliban signed an agreement in Doha in February 2020 which provided the framework for the Western withdrawal and the intended power transition in Afghanistan where the Taliban could form a coalition government.
Nonetheless, since the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the country on 15 August 2021, the much-hyped inclusive government remains a dream. Moreover, the Taliban seems not in the mood to effect any meaningful change in their ideology and style of governance. It is still primordial. This indeed is a serious concern for the US in particular and the West in general in terms of having contrasting notions of values and norms, both political and socio-religious.
Very importantly, the bill may serve as empirical evidence to highlight disagreement over, and non-conformity with the Taliban rule, by the US authorities including the Pentagon. In other words, the US doesn’t seem to be bothered with who rules Afghanistan and how. The topmost American priority in post-withdrawal Afghanistan is to keep an eye on the Taliban and other non-state actors such as ISIS in order to prevent another 9/11.
For reconnaissance purposes, the US needs physical space, for example, for drone operations and, in this respect, it might have a word with Pakistan and other regional countries such as Tajikistan. Pakistan, on its part, tried to play smart by denouncing any news of providing ‘military bases’ to the US; the latter, too, refuted any such demands put forth. Discursively and diplomatically, such diatribe disturbed bilateral relations in recent weeks.
To add fuel to fire, the proposed law is likely to worsen US-Pakistan relations in the months to come. Regardless of the bill’s approval, it carries immense implications for not just the Taliban in Afghanistan but also for civil-military leadership in Pakistan. President Biden has already taken a hardline towards the civil government in Pakistan. The much-talked about ‘phone call’ – which is still not made- is a case in point. Though the military-to-military contacts were made in the recent weeks, their frequency and utility may go down for the US has militarily exited from this region.
Moreover, the US authorities are very likely to use the bill (and the law, if enacted) to pressure both Taliban controlled Afghanistan and the military-dominated Pakistan, not to harm American interests in the South Asian region in any manner in the foreseeable future. As per the proposed provisions of the bill, if the latter continues to act against the US regional interests, they would face dire consequences in terms of (individual and group) sanctions ─which would further affect the dwindling economies of these countries negatively.
It is worth mentioning that even if the bill is not legislated into law, the US still has many other instruments such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as well as IMF to inflict pain on Pakistan─ and, for that matter, Afghanistan.
Currently, Pakistan’s biggest woe is its weak economy engulfed by high inflation and increasing unemployment. Moreover, foreign and domestic debts run in billions of US dollars. Indeed, it has become a borrowing economy under the current government which is struggling to borrow more money from the IMF. On the other hand, CPEC projects have slowed down in the last three years, and China may not give more loads without strict conditions relating to counterterrorism.
Thus, with few options on its table, Pakistani civil-military authorities have their work cut out in order to devise an effective strategy to weather the storm whose intensity is very strong this time around. A peaceful, pluralist and pro-people policy is what Pakistan needs badly at this hour.
Old tactics are not going to work in a changed context. New ones will, but they require a strong political will and vital societal support which is hard to garner under prevailing conditions grounded in political instability, abject poverty and ineffective governance. Sans a stable political and economic system, Pakistan’s foreign policy will be non-productive and its relations with the US will further deteriorate. It is time for the powerful sections of the state and society to do the much-needed brainstorming on an urgent basis. Any delay will further confirm our collective plunge into the deep blockhole of despair, depression, and deterioration in all respects.