With the change from Donald Trump to Joe Biden at the helm in Washington, the expected review if not reversal of many of the former’s policy choices is underway. One such policy is Trump’s ‘peace’ deal with the Taliban, signed in Doha, Qatar on January 29, 2020. It now appears that the terms of this agreement favoured the Taliban more than Washington. The US committed to withdrawing its troops incrementally from its longest running and seemingly unwinnable foreign war, finally by May 2021. The Taliban committed to never again allowing their soil to be used by terrorists against the US or its interests. This could be read of course as founded on the presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001 and which led to 9/11. The other terms accepted by the Taliban were to reduce violence and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government for a political solution to the conflict.
While the first condition of not allowing terrorists to use Afghan soil will only be tested if and when the Taliban are in power again, the other two have already floundered on the Taliban’s partisan interpretation to their own advantage. Attacks against US and other foreign troops have ceased since the Doha agreement, but have multiplied and taken on even more virulent forms against the Afghan government (including the recent assassination of Afghan women judges in Kabul). Treating the intra-Afghan talks with what they hitherto described as a ‘puppet’ government in Kabul in the classic ‘talking while fighting’ mode, the Taliban have refused to relent on their hardline, fanatical Islamism, which has little if anything to do with the message, letter or spirit of Islam. This has translated into an impasse in the intra-Afghan dialogue, under cover of which the Taliban have inflicted more pain and bloodshed on the hapless Afghan government and people.
The new US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have stated that the Biden administration intends to review the accord with the Taliban to see if the latter was adhering to its terms as described above. Not that the new administration is not of a mind to end Washington’s unending Afghan nightmare that has cost, according to The New York Times, $ 5.9 trillion and 2,000 US troops’ lives (and counting). But the review/revisit of the accord implies that the Biden administration is wary of a post-US withdrawal rollover of the Afghan government by their Taliban foes. This may lead the US to insist on stricter compliance by the Taliban to what they have agreed on pain of slowing down (or even, shivers in Washington notwithstanding), stopping the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US troops or reversing it.
Whether the political will still exists in the US for this course seems unlikely. However, on present trends it appears almost inevitable that final US withdrawal will result in a continuation of the civil war, in which the Taliban appear to have an upper hand. Pakistani officials cannot suppress their triumphalism (and even perhaps smirks) at having bested the superpower through their support to the Taliban (just as they did to the Soviet Union with support to the Mujahideen). Media reports say such officials are not surprised by the announcement of the US review, but dismiss it as Washington has little room for manoeuvre, describing the US move as unlikely to result in drastic changes to the Doha accord and more likely to prove ‘cosmetic’.
It would be unwise for Pakistan to rub any more salt into the US’s wounds. Empires have long memories. The Soviet Union collapsed within two years of its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and its central and largest successor Russia eventually overcame its predecessor state’s humiliation in the interests of its new position and status in the world, including outreach to, and cooperation and friendly relations with Pakistan. That does not apply to the US. If incoming Secretary of Defence ex-General Lloyd Austin’s statement the other day is taken into account that Pentagon-GHQ relations would continue if not be enhanced despite the Trump administration’s security and defence assistance suspension, sweetened by the carrot dangled of a resumption of military training for Pakistani officers, it seems obvious that the US desires a continuation of the regional ‘policeman’s’ role for arguably one of the largest, battle hardened, professional Muslim armies in the theatre, as in the past. With China stepping in as the default supplier of state-of-the-art weaponry to the Pakistani military, the Pentagon wishes to compete peacefully with Beijing in keeping the Pakistani military on its side.
While this may be good news for the Pakistani military, it offers precious little for the civilian citizens of Pakistan. They are likely to bear the brunt of the ‘revenge’ of Washington for its Afghan humiliation through the levers of the US being Pakistan’s largest textile and other exports markets, Islamabad’s need to have the international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank (in which the US largely holds sway) supportive of its floundering economy, with last but not least the sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) dangling over our heads.
This second ‘triumph’ in Afghanistan may end up costing the people of Pakistan heavily, who had nothing to do with Washington’s debacle. The real authors of the US’s humiliation seem on the other hand about to be ‘rewarded’ for greater geopolitical and strategic considerations.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021