EDITORIAL: Media reports speak of Pakistan’s increasing frustration at the Taliban’s foot dragging regarding a political settlement with the Afghan government to ensure the country does not spiral into a fresh civil war following the US and NATO forces’ withdrawal by September 11, 2021. Although some reports say Pakistan is embarking afresh on persuading the Taliban to rejoin the sputtering peace process on pain of ‘tough actions’ by Pakistan, it is problematic what such measures, if any, could entail and what, if anything, they might achieve. It needs only to be recalled that at various points in time and facing dire circumstances, particularly after 9/11, the Taliban have refused to bend to Pakistan’s wishes. Currently, enjoying as they do the initiative on the battlefield and in control of considerable territory, the intransigent Taliban are unlikely to fritter away these advantages at the negotiating table. Pakistan seems particularly peaked at the Taliban boycott of the peace conference in Istanbul that followed US President Biden’s shifting the final date for withdrawal to September 11, 2021 instead of May 1, 2021 agreed under Trump. Pakistan’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq, travelled to Kabul on April 27, 2021 to reassure the Afghan government that Pakistan would try to persuade the Taliban to attend the postponed Istanbul conference as Islamabad believes the insurgents would be making a huge mistake if they stay out of the peace process. Long a supporter of the Taliban, Islamabad seems to have veered round to considering both the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban equally unreasonable. Nevertheless, a Pakistani delegation is on its way to Doha to meet the Taliban leadership. Amidst deep seated and incremental fears about the ability of the Afghan military and security forces set up, trained and financed by the US to the tune of billions of dollars, to hold their own against the Taliban after the US/NATO forces depart, US Defense Secretary General (retired) Lloyd Austin has telephoned COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss the scenario and related matters. This may be interpreted as the restoration of the military to military relationship between the Pentagon and GHQ, badly battered by the events of the last 20 years in Afghanistan. It may also reflect the concern on both sides regarding the fallout of a Taliban post-withdrawal victory, not only inside Afghanistan, but in the region as a whole, of which Pakistan is first and foremost in the path of adverse consequences, including a fresh wave of refugees and a resurgence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ensconced in safe havens on Taliban-controlled Afghan soil.
As US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley has put it, it is not possible to predict Afghanistan’s fate after the US’ troop withdrawal, with the worst-case outcome a collapse of the Afghan government. Describing it as a tough situation, General Milley said there were no good answers to any of it. With due respect to the General, who may be trying to soften the blow of the US’ defeat in Afghanistan that many insightful analysts have been predicting for years, the outcome of Washington’s longest foreign war is obvious to all but the purblind or biased. Afghanistan has the distinction of being labelled the ‘graveyard of empires’, testimony to the unyielding character of Afghans towards foreign invaders and occupiers. That the defeat of the Red Army in this landlocked country was one of the reasons behind disintegration of the Soviet Union is a fact. The US is unlikely to suffer such a catastrophic fate, but it will almost certainly come out of its Afghan adventure with its nose askew, if not broken. The long-suffering Afghan people have little to look forward to except a possible fresh civil war (at best) after the withdrawal, with an eventual Taliban victory all but written in stone. Pakistan may well come to rue the day it created and unleashed the Taliban, the whole episode coming back to haunt us for years if Afghanistan reverts to hardline Taliban rule, with its concomitant consequences for democracy, women and ethnic groups’ rights inside the country, and a possible uptick in TTP activities inside Pakistan. Militancy may have proved ‘handy’ to attempt so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan, but time may prove how high a cost Pakistan has paid, and will pay, for its own Afghan adventure.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021