Recalibrating Priorities

With a little over four months left till the US’ self-imposed deadline for withdrawal in Afghanistan, the narrative has shifted, from one of finding a lasting solution to instead preserving the partnership between Washington and Kabul. In the two decades since the war first started, the stated promises of bringing peace to Afghanistan and ending control of the Taliban by successive administrations have been forgotten.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words last week on this are a significant indicator that US interest, much like the threat of terror—at least according to the US envoy—has moved elsewhere. Washington’s stated focus is now China and the pandemic. This is further evidenced by the ‘Annual Threat Assessment of US Intelligence Community’, released in early April by ODNI.

For a neutral observer, many of the fears cited in this report look to come straight out of a bipolar hegemonic power handbook. But the first point of note is the ordering of the threats themselves. From the outset, China has been identified as the most significant risk in the coming year. The report regurgitates classic Cold War fears of a coming battle between two economic systems defined by ideologies, each vying for global supremacy, where the US shoulders the familiar burden of liberal governance and diplomacy, contrasted against a hostile and rapacious Asian power.

Other ‘threats’ are cast in a similar light: both Russia and Iran follow China’s pattern of spreading dark influence in the world, posing a threat to the US and its allies. North Korea follows with much of the same (albeit with more limited capacity to offer up a cogent threat).

But perhaps the most striking revelation in this report is that in the section on terror, al-Qaeda does get a mention, but there is no reference to its presence in Afghanistan. Instead its existence is identified as scattered in Africa and parts of the Middle East like Yemen, with a vague reference of a footprint in South Asia. This little omission is telling. Going by the threat assessment drafted by the top intelligence minds of the US, this makes the policy shift and the reasons for the resultant withdrawal much clearer.

Afghanistan finally appears in the last section of the document, under the ‘conflicts and instability’ header. The two bullet points that make a mention of Afghanistan’s instability do not identify the grave pitfalls associated with attempting to end the conflict. But even in this insignificant mention, it is clear that the US intelligence community is under no false impression of the peace process proving to be successful once the withdrawal is complete.

The war on terror started against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban government in Kabul at the time. And while the former allegedly might have been defanged according to the White House, every passing day makes the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan stronger. This view is reasserted in the threat assessment as well. Every attack makes the Taliban’s hold over the battlefield more consolidated; this past Friday saw another assault by the group in the Logar province, which led to the deaths of at least 12 policemen.

The Biden Administration might be quick to wash its hands off Afghanistan, but this manufactures an expectation that regional players such as China, Russia and most of all, Pakistan will take up the dirty work of bringing peace to Afghanistan. This “peace” remains an undefined, abstract ideal that tends to mean different things for all stakeholders.

And even if there were tangible aims for Pakistan and all remaining parties to achieve, they seem unattainable given that the Afghan government’s capacities to govern and militarily assert itself remain tentative. Meanwhile the Taliban go from strength to strength, with nothing to prevent scores of defections from the Afghan National Army in months ahead. For now there is intense fighting going on that will determine the fate of an intra-Afghan settlement. On May 4, the Ministry of Defence claimed a major victory when it declared the killing of a key Taliban commander, Mawlawi Rahmuddin alongside 27 prisoners rescued in an operation near Lashkargah, Helmand. But this came off the back of attacks by the Taliban in Farah and Lashkargah itself, where the Taliban had taken over an outpost. Helmand and other regions will continue to see more conflict as the year progresses. The latest in this spate of fighting saw the Afghan government forces claim to have killed 100 Taliban fighters on Tuesday.

Recent reports indicate that Pakistan is using any and all pressure against the Afghan Taliban to bring them to the negotiation table. Policy experts here in Pakistan have always maintained that there has been an element of overstatement regarding the level of influence Pakistan has over the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban are wily negotiators who only ever act out of self-interest and will concede to talks when battlefield outcomes favour them. Pakistan must also contend with its own Taliban offshoot, the restive TTP which has carried out up to 100 attacks across the Pak-Afghan border between July and October 2020. The TTP is raring for new purpose and will carry out increased attacks on Pakistani territory to match the violence flaring up across the border.

For us here at home, the violence now is an indication of greater instability to come after the US withdrawal. If a civil war breaks out, as some have predicted, the fallout in terms of displaced communities across the border and attacks against Pakistan’s minorities may well become an unmanageable mess. An Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban will embolden a host of non-state actors in Pakistan, who rely on the region’s significant war economy to survive, equip, resource and profit themselves. Serious efforts have been made to disrupt their supply chains and sources of funding in recent years, but the effort is far from over. A new scale of investment needs to be made to absorb the impact of potentially displaced populations, especially through the provision of social infrastructure in major cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Meanwhile, Pakistan must continue charting a neutral path in assisting the Afghan led peace process. Creating depth in diplomatic relations, as well as expanding the ambit of development assistance has introduced clarity for Pakistan’s role. The economic progress of the war-torn state should remain a priority for all international partners, and Pakistan must continue all possible cooperation, especially in enhancing social sector capacities like healthcare coverage in response to COVID. Some gains have been made at the cost of incalculable loss and suffering, and it is vital to maintain and improve systems that deliver benefit to Afghan citizens. All this sits at a remove from the hard-nosed negotiation going on over Afghanistan’s future, but most intra-Afghan parties see value in preserving these gains.

It is now a wait-and-see game till September. Even if the Taliban agree to parley, they will draw a hard bargain. Threat assessments from the US may well downplay the challenge to scale back its own commitments, but those sharing a border know that new arbiters will have to step in to prevent more bloodshed.