The Afghan Endgame Post-US Withdrawal

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As September 11 draws closer, there are concerns in Pakistan about how the situation will pan out post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Twenty years of fierce fighting between Taliban and a coalition of NATO and Afghan forces led by the US have ravaged the country and exhausted the superpower into finally bidding adieu to Afghanistan, albeit with a couple of riders one of which is that it would create a military basis in the neighborhood to monitor the situation. The first choice, of course, was Pakistan. But with the new bold leadership in complete sync with the establishment saying a firm no, the US will have to look out for other options. Which, as a matter of fact, it already has.

Pakistan’s relationship, despite its ups and downs, with Afghanistan is something that no other country has. It’s a relationship that is rooted in culture, religion, and ethnicity. And this precisely is why Pakistan, unlike other nations interested in Afghanistan, knows the country like the back of its hand. Pakistan is the country that played a pivotal role in ending the erstwhile USSR occupation of Afghanistan which finally led to the disintegration of the country, which many in Pakistan also see as giving the USSR back what it did to Pakistan in 1971 by helping India create Bangladesh. It also goes to the credit of Pakistan’s strategic brilliance that Russia is on its side now as far as Afghanistan is concerned.

The emergence of the Taliban, after it was dislodged from power with the US hot on its heels in the wake of 9/11, is no less a miracle for which the militia and its backers deserve immense respect and praise.

Pakistan created and kept sustaining Taliban post- Cold War US abandonment of the region, having deep ethnic links with the majority Pashtun population that have divided tribes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rise of the Taliban also kept the US hegemony in check besides cutting to size India that has always used Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terrorism targeting Pakistan, this long before the fascist Hindutva regime of BJP coming to power in India.

However, the Afghan Taliban could not help in deterring TTP terrorists from running its writ in the tribal areas wherefrom it perpetrated terror against entire Pakistan until defeated comprehensively by the Pakistan security and armed forces. TTP, like ISKP and Baloch terrorist groups, all of whom have been reduced to small cells now, are being bankrolled by India to further its skewed and unrealistic agenda in the region. Not only have the Pakistani intelligence agencies given proof of India’s role in it but, after the emergence to power of the Hindu right in India, many former intelligence agents and analysts have been openly acknowledging and bragging about India’s role in an attempt to destabilize Pakistan.

After the Pakistani security agencies handed a crushing defeat to TTP and its terror subsidiaries, India secretly financed and facilitated the formation of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), trying to create a political force that could be passed off as a peaceful group of dissenters with demand, while in reality, they were only a political face of a brutal terror organization capitalizing on decades of collateral damage. Many PTM activists were and are in constant touch with top TTP terrorists, but the alertness of the security forces and their readiness to sacrifice their lives has been keeping TTP at bay.

The Afghan Taliban are divided into four major and many minor splinter groups. It is an achievement of humongous scale for the Pakistani intelligence establishment’s senior managers to have brought them all together for a deal with the USA. However, post-US withdrawal, the alliance of the various Taliban groups is a rare possibility. It also gives credence to the fear of a repeat of the bloody history in Afghanistan.

Civil wars and resultant atrocities in Afghanistan are not in the national interests of Pakistan, which is in the process of building trade and energy corridors with central Asia and beyond, passing through Afghanistan. CPEC also requires a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

A central government in Kabul, having natural dispensation of all stakeholders in Afghanistan is therefore critical for Pakistan and China’s strategic interests. Russia is also clearly on board in this endeavor. Fortunately, such an arrangement is also in the US interests. Afghan Taliban seem willing to accommodate, as they do not want all these powers to play against them in the future.

A shared governance set-up in Afghanistan having all the genuine stakeholders on board will ensure the required stability suited to the strategic interests of all the major powers involved in the region. However, India will keep on playing the role of a spoiler due to their unsubstantiated fears of an increased China-Pakistan role in Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal era which is only weeks away. India’s continued opposition to Pakistan brokered Afghan Peace is an open secret. Irrespective of the Indian shenanigans, the USA went ahead with signing the deal with the Taliban.

The geostrategic position of Pakistan makes it a compulsion for anyone dealing with land-locked Afghanistan and Central Asia, to keep Pakistan on board. Pakistan’s huge relevance cannot be ignored by India, especially after the failure of the Indian project to bypass Pakistan through Chahbahar in Iran. It calls on India to take the sensible path and talk to Pakistan. Peaceful Afghanistan is in the best interests of the entire region.

This article was initially published by The Nation on June 22, 2021

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