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Given the worsening security situation in Afghanistan amidst America’s troop withdrawal, all eyes were on the meeting last Friday between US President Joe Biden and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. The two leaders’ press talk and the ensuing statement gave an impression that the Biden administration is already resigned to accept bad outcomes as the US leaves the battlefield, whereas Ghani looked more eager to secure continued US financial support than complain about a hasty pullout of foreign forces.

As some commentators put it, it seemed like a “farewell call”. Biden gives a stoic impression that he is leaving Afghanistan, no matter how his administration is tested by the Taliban victories and regardless of how challenging it becomes for the country left behind. To save some face, Ghani was promised over $3 billion in security assistance, a quarter billion dollars in humanitarian assistance, and diplomatic support.

The message from America is clear: after two decades of military and economic assistance from US, Afghanistan is now on its own. That approach makes rational sense, as the national security threat to the US has diminished from Afghanistan and the US public doesn’t worry at all about this war. Biden has been around long enough to recognize that it a no-win situation in Afghanistan, so better cut your losses and leave the graveyard of empires (and wait for the next superpower to go long in this rugged region).

However, the diplomatic and military tools of engagement that the US has at its disposal seem to be struggling to achieve orderly withdrawal. Reports indicate that the Taliban now control a fifth of Afghanistan’s 421 districts, with government forces on the retreat in several areas. This is the fighting season after all, and the Taliban, who don’t seem interested in talking now, have incentive to push harder.

While major provincial capitals are still safe, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has prompted Republican leaders in Biden’s opposition to start criticizing the administration’s approach. Surely President Biden wouldn’t want a catastrophe on his watch, where the Afghan government forces disintegrate soon after the US withdrawal, or worse, during the pullout? An analysis in the New York Times, following the Ghani visit, summed up the situation thus:

“[President Biden] decision to pull out American troops by Sept. 11 is one of the most consequential of his presidency so far, a deeply personal calculation that comes “from the gut,” as one official put it. And despite the worsening security situation, gloomy intelligence reports and the likelihood the White House will face terrible images of human suffering and loss in the coming weeks and months, Mr. Biden has vowed to withdraw regardless of the conditions on the ground”.

This scenario, where peace talks are practically dead and there is no political framework to govern Afghanistan post-US withdrawal, does not bode well for Pakistan. If the Taliban are able to march right up to Kabul within a few months of departure of foreign forces, the resulting government will not carry international legitimacy and Pakistan will be blamed for orchestrating a Taliban victory all along. The US might even start wielding a bigger stick if the Taliban gains intensify before complete troop withdrawal.

On the other hand, if the Afghan government forces, with the help of US munitions and militias, are able to hold off the Taliban from taking control in major cities and towns, the resulting stalemate is feared to potentially create a situation where regional powers and non-state actors will start funding different factions. This will prolong and intensify the civil war, with attendant consequences for Pakistan’s security as violence will spill over here. Economy has to be shielded from the militant blowback of past years.

This is a critical time for Pakistani leadership, as decisions made (or decisions deferred) now will impact society and economy for a generation. The stance to not allow US bases on Pakistani soil is a rational one, even if it annoys the US. The two countries still need to find meaningful ways to avoid a nightmare scenario in Afghanistan. It doesn’t help that Biden has refused to engage Pakistan PM, who has had to write op-eds and give interviews in US media to get some attention. Just pick up the phone, Joe.


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