Be careful what you wish for! Pakistanis have been opposed to American presence in the country’s backyard, but now that Uncle Sam is leaving Afghanistan in a state of limbo later this year, there will be a whole lot of uncertainty stalking this region for quite some time. Without a peace deal in place, it is feared that Pakistan’s western frontier will descend into more chaos.
History shows that instability in Afghanistan tends to spill over into Pakistan in damaging ways. A peace deal there would have left an interim government in place, with warring factions learning to coexist and behave, in order to develop their country. With the US losing interest in a post-withdrawal setup, the likely scenario now is the fragmentation of the country among different power centers, with the Taliban on top.
This will lead to more violent conflict as regional countries will be compelled to back like-minded factions to hedge their bets. It appears as it will be the nineties all over again. Back then, the Soviet withdrawal (1989) had created a power vacuum that led to a civil war for most of that decade. A generation later, there is a sense of déjà vu in the air, and it doesn’t smell good.
Having painfully rid itself of large-scale terrorism incidents over the past decade, this time around Pakistan’s economy can hardly afford a situation where violence is imported into this country. Being a landlocked country, Afghanistan depends a great deal on its neighbors, especially Pakistan. One was hoping for economic revival in the war-torn country post-withdrawal, but it looks gloomy on that front.
While it is obvious that the US does not want a repeat of the ‘Fall of Saigon’ in Kabul so quickly after leaving, it isn’t clear yet as to what expectations the Biden administration has for Pakistan. There are reports that American military, which needs to maintain a counter-terrorism capability in Afghanistan, is looking for “bases” in bordering countries, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan
The realpolitik of the moment suggests that in order for Pakistan to deepen its economic relations with the US, it may have to prove militarily useful to the extent of assisting the Biden administration’s Afghanistan strategy post withdrawal. Pakistan is the obvious choice for the basing decision, but it appears that it will be a tough sell in this country, given the not-so-distant history of US drone operations.
Meanwhile, some seasoned observers are worrying that China and Russia may misinterpret American withdrawal as a weakness and provoke conflicts in Taiwan and Ukraine, respectively. In that context, an orderly withdrawal, continued engagement, and subsequent peace and quiet on the Afghan front matters for Joe Biden. Pakistan can create some leverage by helping US out in some meaningful form.