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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Afghanistan’s tricky endgame: What should Pakistan do?

Hadia Mukhtar, a geopolitical analyst, highlights the tough situation in Afghanistan; the Taliban are not complying with peace agreements and the US is reluctant to give up complete control. In all this, Pakistan should be careful while cooperating with the US.

As the last round of US forces pitches for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the post 9/11 Pak-US ties, which were originally touted as the strategic alliance, have come full circle. Moreover, in the post 9/11 era, the strategic nature of the relationship has transformed into a transactional one with military and civilian support to Pakistan in return for its unwavering cooperation in the Afghan war as a frontline player.

Now, as the US embarks on its exit from Afghanistan, ironically, there isn’t any attempt to reset the alignment since the US administration has given no indication of the relationship moving away from the Afghan pivot.

US foreign policy goals under Biden are more or less defined with no prospect of any shift from its existing position on Afghanistan concerning Pakistan. Such an approach of viewing Pakistan from the Afghan prism will continue to dominate US foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Read more: Biden’s foreign policy agenda and the new world order

This means that the “do more” mantra will continue to exert pressure on Pakistan to secure the US a dignified exit and also cooperate with post-withdrawal security plans in the region. It is because as a part of the US’s role in fighting global terrorism, it wants to have its presence in Afghanistan even if the troops and NATO forces make their withdrawal.

The recent statement from the spokesman from Pentagon highlights the quest of the Biden administration to negotiate with Pakistan and regional countries on the option of having US bases there. This reinforces the idea that the US wants to stay in the Afghanistan game and sees the role of Pakistan in it.

At this point, Biden’s earlier statement as a US vice-president in Obama’s term, where he emphasized that Pakistan is far more important to the US than Afghanistan, comes full circle.

Read more: Re-engaging with the US: Should Pakistan be careful?

On the whole, the bilateral ties are expected to remain transactional with the convergence of interests at the backdrop of the Afghan peace process. On one hand, Pakistan’s support to the US remains crucial to bringing an end to the decades-long war, on the other hand, rapid geopolitical developments in South Asia, particularly in the backdrop of Pakistan-China nexus and cooperation on CPEC, has cast a shadow over US-Pakistan ties under Biden’s administration.

This is evident by the fact that it has been past six months since Joe Biden assumed the office and there have not been high-level talks between the two strategically aligned countries.

Apart from few telephonic conversations between US senior officials and Pakistan civil and military leadership on matters of mutual concern over the Afghan conflict, no prominent negotiations have been there which could define the model of the future relationship.

Read more: Pakistan and US: Partners in new economic geography?

Pakistan’s predicament

If any country that has been directly felt or has witnessed a spillover effect of violence and anarchy in Afghanistan is Pakistan. Therefore, amid the peace process, Pakistan’s core interests lie in ensuring a friendly government in Afghanistan in the backdrop of legitimate political settlement endorsed by the US and a guarantee that Afghan soil will be used as a launching pad for cross-border terrorism.

However, what is making Pakistan’s predicament more serious is the fact that there isn’t much progress towards the power-sharing formula in the political settlement. Taliban’s refusal to attend the peace conference in Istanbul and the Afghan government’s reluctance to foster the much-awaited intra Afghan dialogue are the major stumbling blocks.

Read more: Why the Taliban rejected Govt call for Ramadan ceasefire?

The situation has become more complicated and worsening because of the continued offensive by the insurgent groups, terrorist factions, and the ISIS presence in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces who leave no stone unturned to dominate the political void left by the US as the foreign troop start their exit.

Thus, it becomes inevitable that the US exit will alter the already prevalent volatile situation in the region’s geopolitics predominately because of Pakistan’s geo-strategic location that has historically made it prone to influence by external powers and proxy battles.

Read more: Is the US being unfair towards Pakistan?

Will history repeat itself?

The US withdrawal deadline has raised genuine concerns among Pakistan and regional countries about the shape of things in Afghanistan which is largely politically unstable as violent incidents involving the loss of lives continue at a rate of knots.

Despite the amplified fears of anarchy in Afghanistan and proposed deals to reach a broad-based consensus on power-sharing what remains a million-dollar question is whether the Afghan government and Taliban are ready to lend an ear to this.

The current scenario highlights the fact that the Taliban are playing hardball. They believe that through violence they can take power by force and hence circumvent the negotiation table.

Read more: Taliban capture more districts, surround Kabul

Such an approach makes it clear that although Pakistan can urge the Taliban to go for a peaceful settlement, it cannot exercise much influence on the group as they are independent actors and autonomous decision-makers concerning their future role in Afghanistan.

Thus, if the security void is created in the absence of a peace deal, history might repeat itself with violence knowing no bounds and regional players left to deal with the mess.

In many ways, the situation mirrors what had happened after the Afghan Jihad. When both USSR and the US left Afghanistan after the former’s defeat and the latter’s victory, the Taliban gained unprecedented control over the territory and its soil became the hub of transnational terrorism and militancy.

Read more: Will Taliban continue their reign of terror after US exit?

The script may not be different but rather fierce and deadly this time as multiple militant factions with competing agendas are pitching for control amid the security vacuum.

Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace solution

As both regional, external and internal players have used Afghan soil as a chessboard to checkmate one other to garb power and secure maximum interests, the people of the country have faced the brunt of the aggression. The economy of the country has been devastated and social institutions such as health, education, and family had suffered intensely and terribly.

Scarred by the wounds of the lawlessness and violence, the people of Afghanistan are desperate to see the light of day, and therefore, all stakeholders in the Afghan peace process must do whatever they can to formulate a lasting peace accord ensuring that foreign forces should not interfere with the nation-building.

Such an approach brings forth the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process that respects the sovereignty and territorial inviolability of the state and leaves the people of Afghanistan to decide their political future.

Read more: Washington must save the Afghan peace process while there is still time

The role of the foreign powers is grounded on providing good offices and mediation to facilitate the peace process and help in removing the stumbling blocks in the midst.

However, the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is complicated in a country like Afghanistan where regional and external countries have competing vested interests. Since Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country, various powers have employed its soil to wage proxy wards and influence the country’s politics accordingly.

As Iran has always backed the Northern alliance against the Sunni-Taliban in the Afghan civil war, the situation may return to such a point that it could drag Pakistan into a protracted conflict. This may intensify Pakistan’s predicament regarding the sectarian conflicts on its soil which has threatened the solidarity and security of the country.

Read more: Increased sectarian violence in Pakistan, why is the Gulf silent?

Furthermore, the changing geopolitics of the South Asian region have created new strategic alignments and arrangements. The growing cooperation and emerging nexus between the US and India at the backdrop of waiver for India to join Nuclear Supplier Group, Civil Nuclear Deal, F-16 factory, and military pacts have emboldened India against Pakistan and China axis.

This has threatened Pakistan’s interests greatly, particularly in the context of its desired peace in Afghanistan and CPEC which is a game-changer for its economy and social upliftment.

In this respect, the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process can only work if there is a neutral and legitimate political settlement at Kabul that protects the sovereignty of the country and ensures that in Afghanistan only economic progress and development should dominate rather than respective geopolitical interests and stakes of the countries.

Read more: Afghanistan: What will it take to achieve sustainable peace?

The bottom-line

It is undeniable that Afghanistan concerning its location holds multiple stakes for different countries involved directly and indirectly in the Afghan imbroglio and peace process. For China, a peaceful Afghanistan is conducive as it could provide it with a gateway to Central Asian Republics and access to its hydrocarbon reserves to fuel its growing economy.

For India, a political settlement in Afghanistan that does not protect its vested interests concerning its hybrid war ambitions against Pakistan and sabotaging tactics against CPEC is problematic.

For the US, withdrawing from Afghanistan does not mean leaving the country as it desires to keep a close eye on China and its BRI-backed expanding visions. As a result, it aims to keep its presence by emboldening its strategic allies and securing its bases in regional countries as a part of its containment doctrine.

Read more: Pakistan will not allow US military bases on its soil

For Pakistan, it is in its best interests to cooperate with the US in achieving a peaceful solution in Afghanistan. However, this does not mean the country drags itself again into America’s new game in Afghanistan.

Multiple geopolitical changes are favoring Pakistan’s interests such as Pakistan’s emerging ties with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan-China-Iran confluence, Pakistan’s growing defense ties with Russia, and Pakistan’s diplomatic attainments concerning Kashmir and Palestine on international forums.

These developments can contribute positively towards the realization of where Pakistan’s key interests lie and how it can prioritize maximum opportunities while negotiating the terms of its relationship with the US in the backdrop of the Afghan peace process.

Read more: Here’s why Pakistan is unable to become a super power

Hadia Mukhtar is a Pakistani geopolitical analyst in Karachi with a keen interest in international relations. She has worked as a content writer for international publications and has worked on non-fiction books. She can be reached at hadia.mukhtar92@gmail.com.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.