The Bidden administration is all set to withdraw all its remaining troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, thus virtually ending the longest war - ‘war on terror’. On the other side, the Taliban has warned for increasing the attacks against foreign forces in case the withdrawal is not complete by the deadline. This confidence is a reflection of the Taliban currently controlling more than fifty percent area of Afghanistan and not even ready to stop its attacks on foreign and local forces and bow before any foreign or local pressures. The announcement of withdrawal of US and NATO troops form the Afghan soil has sent shock waves among various regional players about the future state of affairs in this region. The new challenges for Pakistan in case the US decides to operate from Pakistan - China’s increasing influence filling post-withdrawal vacuum, India’s concerns about future relationships with the Taliban government, and similar other concerns have attracted the attention of scholars.
With the leaving of America, Pakistan is thought to be a big player dominating the political scenes of Afghanistan due to past relationships with the Taliban regime and the part she played in bringing warring parties on the negotiating table. However, there is much media hype about Pakistan providing a military base to America after withdrawal to deal with any situation that may need American action. If we just recall the 9/11 incident we have seen that the Pakistan fell to the then-American President George. W. Bush’s warning, ‘that you are either with them or with us’ by giving ground and air access to its troops to Afghanistan. During all these years Pakistan has played a significant role for the US in giving air and land access to its troops for operation, material, and food supplies. The American policymakers recognize services rendered by state of Pakistan including her role in an ongoing peace process. However, Pakistan faces a new challenge in case the US decides to operate through her territory after NATO withdrawal. David F. Helvey, a Pentagon official and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs said recently that Pakistan allowed US and its forces to use Pakistan’s air and ground space to support its presence in Afghanistan. Rejecting rumors about any fresh US military base in Pakistan, foreign Office spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudri said: "There is no US military or airbase in Pakistan, nor was any such proposal envisaged. Any speculation on this account is baseless and irresponsible and should be avoided."(Dawn 25 May). He also clarified that ‘Pakistan will neither allow any drone strike nor will an American base be established here’. The same was reiterated by its foreign Minister, Shah Mohmad Quershi later on.
In the meantime, the national security advisors of both the states met in Geneva and issue a joint statement by declaring that the US and Pakistan, ‘agreed to advance practical cooperation’. These new developments are looked at seriously among the policy circles of Islamabad. Providing a military base to the US will involve Pakistan in a new ‘game’ where she will face a direct challenge of Taliban attacks in the future and the resurgence of internal armed groups. Taliban has warned Islamabad for opting such a route. “We urge neighboring countries not to allow anyone to do so, and if such a step is taken again, it will be a great and historic mistake and disgrace and the Taliban would not remain silent in the face of such heinous and provocative acts.”(The Diplomat May 27). This is a serious dilemma before the political, military, and intelligence agencies in Pakistan. How will Pakistan please and assure the Taliban leadership its good will about this uncertainty and how will she balance itself between the US and China and in the post-withdrawal phase will be of immense attraction.
Rejected all such claims of providing bases to the US, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an interview to Axios on HBO, which is a documentary new-program, that, “there is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not”. However, the search for finding a suitable bases for its military for future operations in Afghanistan and other such places is continued from American side.
For China, withdrawal means a combination of opportunities and challenges. A stable, peaceful and friendly Afghanistan is necessary for her internal security, enhancing business and investments, and increasing her hegemonic influence in the region. China is wary of the post-withdrawal situation in case the insurgent activities intensified with the support of groups operating in Afghanistan in its province of Xinjiang as Afghanistan shares borders with this province. At the same time, China is intending to enhance its investment in Afghanistan and connect the latter to its mega project of BRI through CPEC thus enhancing a trilateral economic and security relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. China was therefore very quick to host a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of these three countries recently to assess the post-withdrawal situation in the region.
“The three countries needed to strengthen communication and cooperation”, said the Chinese Foreign Minister, at the occasion, “for the sake of Afghanistan’s security, stability, and its neighbors” (Xinhua news 04 June). China, by taking the note of her past experiences, normally is not involving herself in the conflictual situations where she has to bear material or human costs. However, the increasing and intensified relationships between India and the US and other players in Asia especially in Southeast Asia to deter Chinese growing assertions, has given realization to Beijing not to leave Afghanistan unattended this time. She may readily bear costs for her security interests and hegemonic designs. The American search for finding bases around Afghanistan is worrying concern for China.
The options for India to deal with the post-withdrawal situation are limited. During all these years India has invested a lot to build social and political capital in Afghanistan by extending her soft power skills without, however, any confrontation or negotiation with the Taliban. The post-withdrawal is a promising resurgence of the Taliban in a big way given their strength and motivation to dominate the political scene of Afghanistan. This reality has been accepted by all the regional players like, Iran, Pakistan, and China and also by big powers like the USA and Russia, who all have started their engagement in one or another way to the new dispensation. Is it only India that lags behind? Surely the apparent picture suggests so. As per the analysts, the repercussions of US withdrawal and Taliban’s resurgence will be seen in Pakistan’s enhancing position in future Afghan political-military circles; intensity in the insurgent activities on Indian soil by the forces whose confidence may touch heights after the US withdrawal-sabotaging the India’s work done in Afghanistan in past two decades etc.,. The MEA of India raised concern at the US announcement of withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan but reiterated that ‘India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan,”. But the given circumstances must motivate India to no longer be satisfied with the policy of status quo in engaging with the Taliban. These are tough situations for foreign policymakers and diplomats. I may quote here one of the influential American neo-realist thinkers, Thomas Schelling whose writings on ‘strategic realism’ have influenced American policymakers during cold-war years and even now.
He says, “The activity of foreign policy is technically instrumental and thus free from moral choice. It is not primarily concerned about what is good or what is right. It is primarily concerned with the question: what is required for our policy to be successful?”(Schelling: The Strategic Conflict 1980, pp. 160-80). So reorienting foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan seems an immediate necessity. The policymakers have now to give thought to the realpolitik. Engaging with the Taliban through different channels like Iran, Russia and the US could be the first step in building ground. Today’s friend could turn enemy tomorrow and vice versa is the old logic of real politics.
Shabeer Ahmad Parey is Assistant Professor Political Science, Department of Higher Education, currently heading the Department of Political Science at Degree College Bandipora,.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.