The US President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan until September 11, a decision that would mark an end to the US’s longest 20 years war after the terrorist attacks that generated it. The announcement comes after a months-long deadlock over peace talks with the Afghan government and the Taliban and extends a withdrawal deadline previously agreed under outgoing President Donald Trump to pull out the US forces by May 1.
This move will have a significant impact not only for the US itself but for the whole region. To start with we need to look at how the Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government will respond to the deal and what likely impacts the withdrawal will have for Afghanistan. President Ghani has long been vying complete peace and political settlement for the country before the US or NATO forces complete withdrawal. When NATO was undecided whether to leave the war-torn country or stay there, Ghani in an interview with the BBC hinted he is seeing it as a “window of opportunity to accelerate the peace process” and that “all parties to the conflict to recalculate and reach a conclusion that we’ve long reached, that use of force is not the solution”. He has, therefore, been stressing dialogue involving all key stakeholders to end the violence and initiate peace.
Afghanistan, which has consistently fought almost endless wars in the past several decades is still at the mercy of foreign aid and security assistance. Its fragile political set up, which consists of power-sharing among many warlords and tribes, coupled with a reeling economy and limited state writ further makes it a risky state. The withdrawal, without having a legal political future set up and a roadmap to the reconstruction and security arrangement, would push the country into another civil war. The Taliban, who are at large in many areas despite Kabul is run by Ashraf Ghani, may intensify their attacks to reclaim their lost grounds. And Afghan security forces are not as modernized or weaponized that they can hold Taliban onslaught for long. Although several efforts have been made to reach out to an intra-Afghan political settlement, their outcomes remain unprofitable. The Taliban have refused to participate in this week’s Afghan Peace Conference in Turkey saying that they will not attend any summits on Afghanistan’s future until all foreign forces leave the country. The Taliban have already threatened to resume attacks on foreign troops if President Biden fails to meet May 1 deadline. The Taliban had stopped attacking foreign troops in earlier negotiations but vowed to continue targeting Afghan forces. The Taliban’s absence from a 10-day long peace conference in Turkey and their threatening posture is a worrisome factor because it will not only dry out serious peace efforts but can drag the state more into infightings. Also, there are chances that the beleaguered insurgents would surface again to challenge the Afghan security forces.
The withdrawal plan, which on paper looks good and allows the US to take its hands off from an exhausting war, has cross border effects, too. Pakistan, which has been an important player in this two decades-long war, also gearing up how it can brace itself in case of the US forces withdrawal really takes place. While announcing the withdrawal plan, President Biden said, “We will ask other countries in the region to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan”, but he also foresaw a crucial role for other “regional countries Russia, China, Turkey and India”. Pakistan has long been hailing the constructive role of Turkey, China and Russia in resolving the Afghan conundrum but expressed reservations over giving India an extended role there. Islamabad sees India’s role in Afghanistan as a mean to encircle it from the western side, too. With President Biden’s intent to let India have its part in bringing peace Afghanistan must have raised eyebrows of the policymakers in Islamabad.
This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke to Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on the telephone and discussed the Biden administration’s Afghan strategy. The Army Chief stressed for a “mutual consensus” based decision among all stakeholders to the Afghan endgame. He also reiterated Pakistan’s full support for the Afghan peace process. Just like the US, Pakistan would also love to see a stable and safe Afghanistan. But there are doubts that the hasty withdrawal of US and NATO forces can leave a power vacuum behind urging warlords to come to scuffle to take the Kabul throne. Having said that, it could have spillover effects for Pakistan as it endured similar consequences when the Soviet Union left Afghanistan leaving Afghanistan and Pakistan reeling. Having this scenario in mind for a long, Pakistan on its part has already taken some steps such as fencing the 1640 miles long and porous Afghan border to stop insurgent’s influx to Pakistan. But, it would still want a peaceful settlement and transition of power inside Afghanistan as Pakistan couldn’t afford to have another political deadlock and security risk state next door.
Who wouldn’t want to see the strenuous Afghan war ending and the safe homecoming of embattling soldiers to the US? Likewise, which country in the region wouldn’t want a secure and stable Afghanistan with a legitimate government sitting in Kabul? On papers, everybody wants a peaceful solution but it’s not as simple as it appears. All stakeholders, especially the US, have to take a special interest in resolving this complicated myth if they all want regional peace and connectivity. Regional stakeholders must also address Pakistan and Afghanistan’s reservations before moving ahead with their respective plans. A hasty exit without a back up plan would cause damage to the peace of the region and the globe alike.