What next in Afghanistan? by Yasmeen Aftab Ali

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The recent offences by Taliban have led to capturing of ten more districts out of the forty by them. The U.S top commander issued a warning that continued such offences may lead to counter offences by U.S in the form of airstrikes. This will be stepping up the game of offences and counter offences. For a war-torn country like Afghanistan, ravaged by decades of invasions and war, coupled with Afghanistan’s effort to survive the invaders, the picture has not been pretty.

Afghan officials have exaggerated their military capabilities repeatedly, the likelihood is that the Taliban will in the battlefield take over more districts and eventually lead to the fall of the present Afghan government. Taliban are in a strong position, already controlling nearly half of Afghanistan. U.S policies and support may well change in future based on the new reality on Afghan soil. The U.S and allies are withdrawing after losing over two decades of war. Unless and until the Taliban and its affiliates launch an offensive that directly impacts the U.S, the latter would not be interested in air strikes from afar; on a country they could not control with boots on ground.

One thing that is consistent in politics is the fact that nothing is consistent. Post-exit changes in security landscape and final political settlements may well direct U.S new strategic support to future powers of Afghanistan. To what degree the U.S can continue to support Afghanistan at financial levels is an unanswered question for the time being.

For now, the world knows of the strategy put forth by the Biden administration. The U.S officials have categorically stated to continue “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism efforts after U.S. troops depart Afghanistan. Biden in his address in April 2021 said, “We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists” in Afghanistan.” [White House, “Remarks by President Biden,”] This is an open-ended statement. It says nothing about what the counterterrorism capabilities will consist of. What ‘assets’ will be reorganized and what kind of financial, military and logistical support can the U.S extend to its allies in Afghanistan. Will the U.S be looking towards establishing bases somewhere closer to Afghanistan? Answers for now fall short of practical applications.

It is here that India can come in as a strategic ally to the U.S.  India has invested over three billion dollars in Afghanistan, mostly in infrastructure projects. India can not afford to be on the wrong side of history in the next round. In June 2021, Qatar’s special envoy for mediation Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani went on record with the confirmation that discussions were held between Indian representatives and the Taliban counterparts in Doha. India will balance the situation. She is being touted as the U.S latest ally for the region. At the same time, India would not like to upset the applecart with Russia.

The Ayni Air Base [also called the ‘Gissar Air Base] is located 10km west of the capital of Tajikistan-Dushanbe. Tajikistan is separated from the Pakistan-administered Kashmir by a sliver of Afghan land. The air base was the launch pad for the Soviets when they invaded Afghanistan. India revived the neglected airbase by investing roughly 70 million U.S dollars between 2002- 2010. They installed a state-of-the art facility besides extending the runway. The U.S will not have to invent the wheel with Ayni Air Base, simply use the one existing.

Besides Ayni, India also has the Farkhor Air Base, based in Tajikistan. As Pakistan does not allow her airspace to India- goods are airlifted to Ayni, from thereon on it is sent to Farkhor from where it goes to Afghanistan. India can offer Indian Occupied Indian Kashmir to the U.S for the air pad. This will be killing two birds with one stone.  First, it will have the “Moral World Policeman” on her side, silencing those who have [on different forums only] verbally condemned this step and two, it will bring pressure on the local population to accept the fait accompli.

India’s policy should ideally be more broad based not dealing with U.S and Afghanistan to the exclusion of other stakeholders. It must seek to include Russia and Iran, even China. Attempting to agree upon common grounds of cooperation.

The interests of stakeholders and regional dynamics will directly have an impact on the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a vulnerable place having a porous border with Afghanistan  and the prospects of having more Afghan refugees as a direct result of civil war that may well become a nightmare come true, leaving Pakistan struggling to deal with the spillover.

Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are further complicated by the presence of over one million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as well as a long-running and ethnically tinged dispute over their shared 1,600-mile border [Pakistan, the United Nations, and others recognize the 1893 Durand Line as an international boundary, but Afghanistan does not. See Vinay Kaura, “The Durand Line: A British Legacy Plaguing Afghan-Pakistani Relations,” Middle East Institute, June 27, 2017]

India shares a border with Pakistan that continues to be volatile. The last thing Islamabad wants is India encircling Pakistan via Afghanistan. Therefore, a Taliban government will be viewed better than an Indian-friendly one. In spite of this, India has historically not shown any interest in engaging militarily in Afghanistan. It can however develop a stakeholders’ consortium to create problems for Pakistan which is encircled at a different plane.

Pakistan will have to make some hard choices soon. It is important that the powers there strategize these choices in different scenarios. First is the creation of a government supported by the U.S and the international community that includes Taliban in the existing set-up. Such a government may lean more towards India-U. S nexus. For Pakistan an unpalatable option. Second, the Afghan government presently in place is replaced with a dominant Taliban presence. Such a set-up is likely to include powerbrokers from central highlands and the north. Pakistan must tread carefully here not to send out a signal that it is trying to ‘control’ Afghan politics. Third is what one feels will be more likely i.e. outbreak of a civil war. The spillover effect for Pakistan means more refugees. It also means increased drug proliferation flowing in from the Afghan border.  Opium cultivation has increased with time – for which Pakistan is a lucrative market. The situation will spell disaster for Pakistan. There can be no assurance that the Taliban will show restraint after the U.S exits. Pakistan cannot ignore the fact that she is on the FATF list. Many of this side of the border may claim the reasons for doing this are not exactly as quoted, however, the facts remain that Pakistan must not be a) seen as or b) targeted for being involved in terror financing Any overt or covert financial or on ground support on either side of the soil can create complications. This can easily lead to a clamp down on IMF financing. Other stakeholders including Russia, Iran and other countries will be forced to step up.

Pakistan will be the worst hit if a civil war breaks out. It is already hosting over three million refugees both registered and unregistered. It cannot possibly have more. Ideally once the U.S leaves the existing refugees need to be repatriated.

Economic stability depends upon political stability. Pakistan needs both economic and political stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has very little time to decide upon the strategies it must proceed with in Afghanistan. Pakistan must understand the world today is a global village. Everything and everyone’s interests are interconnected. Pakistan cannot cut off its nose to spite its face.

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Disclaimer: What next in Afghanistan? by Yasmeen Aftab Ali - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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