It took the US 20 years, 2300 casualties, and $2.26 trillion to realize that it was waging an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s announcement of withdrawal has led to a sharp spike in violence. The Taliban are mounting an offensive and have purportedly captured 200 out of 421 districts in the country. The successive victories of the Taliban in Afghanistan has bristled the international community which is now pointing fingers at Islamabad for its supposed ‘grand policy’ failure in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan has earnestly been trying to bring peace and stability on its western border, because Islamabad knows well that the flames emanating in Afghanistan may inevitably engulf it.
In fact, Pakistan has considerably suffered in the past due to instability in Afghanistan. The invasion by erstwhile Soviet Union on Afghanistan in 1979 changed Pakistan’s security landscape forever. An estimated 3 million refugees crossed over to Pakistan posing a mammoth challenge to its society and polity. It is during this period that ‘Kalashnikov culture’ was born, narcotics trade began, and the economy struggled to bear the brunt of scores of refugees. The latter’s influx also created problems of law and order and deepened sectarian divide in the country.
Many decades later, Pakistan has still not been able to fully recover from the fallout of the Afghan war. The law and order problems morphed into terrorism, ultimately creating a security nightmare for the country, and the madrassahs and jihadi training camps that were once set up to train against the Soviets became hotbeds of militant activities. While the Soviets withdrew in 1989—ten years after its ill-planned invasion—and the US attention from the region has now waned, Pakistan is now left to grapple with the Afghan predicament.
The US attack on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, and the recent Biden administration’s decision to pull out has only exacerbated Pakistan’s Afghan dilemma.
Afghanistan is a mosaic of diverse actors; therefore, an inclusive government accommodating significant players is a sine qua non for any semblance of stability to prevail in the country. It is for this reason that Pakistan strenuously convinced the Taliban to come to the negotiating table to hammer out a peace deal. Islamabad does not have any preferences in Afghanistan and has only played the role of a facilitator in the peace process to preclude the possibility of another civil war on its western border.
Pakistan also has limited influence over the Taliban, and while it may be able to convince the leadership to engage in peace talks, it cannot dictate their course of action. Emboldened by their battlefield victories, the Taliban are more independent and powerful now than they have been in years. Their ascendance and the increasing isolation of Ashraf Ghani within his government means that the former is in a far stronger position. Hence, there is a possibility that the Taliban may continue their military offensive until they have complete control over Afghanistan and then offer talks from a position of strength.
In this context, Pakistan has little choice but to wait and watch. The possibility of a civil war and Islamabad turning into a scapegoat for chaos in Kabul is very real. It must complete the fencing of its border and fortify its defenses against the influx of refugees or militants. At the same time, Islamabad should continue lending support in whatever way it can to the Afghan peace process. Abandoning Afghanistan has never been an option for Pakistan, as a former ambassador put it, “Pakistan might think it would be a good policy to stay away from the Afghan conflict, but the Afghan conflict will not stay away from Pakistan.”
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