If there is one word that can describe the twenty-year ordeal of Afghanistan—it is the word uncertainty. There was uncertainty over what the US would do in Afghanistan after the post 9/11 attack. There was uncertainty over the strategy in Afghanistan. There was uncertainty over the talks with the Taliban. There was uncertainty over the US/NATO exit from Afghanistan. All these uncertainties had serious implications for the US, for Afghanistan and for Pakistan especially in the realm of policy making. Now that all these uncertainties have been resolved the mother of all uncertainties looms ahead to cast an ominous shadow over not just Afghanistan but also Pakistan and the entire region. What will happen after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Various scenarios are being imagined. These are based on the agreement reached in the talks, on Taliban actions as the US withdraws forces, on the reports of militias being raised by warlords, on the performance of the Afghan security forces and the political polarization within the Afghan government and people. There is international acknowledgement that Pakistan has played a positive role in the evolving situation and it has declared, despite provocations, that it will continue to do so. Pakistan has also categorically stated that it will not be drawn into any future conflict in Afghanistan and that it will not allow its territory to be used for external intervention in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s policy is based on lessons learnt the hard way.
Recent reports from within Afghanistan indicate a surge in Taliban initiated violence and their success in large swathes of Afghan territory including the capture of the land route into neighboring Tajikistan. There are also reports of defections and desertions from Afghan Security Forces and this should not come as a surprise because these forces were comparatively safe sanctuaries for Afghan youth as the Taliban overran the countryside. This is no longer the case now as there may be grisly reprisals as happened earlier after the Taliban captured Kabul.
The US has talked of ‘over the horizon attacks’ in support of Afghan forces should the Taliban threaten to overwhelm them. This probably means retaining techint and humint resources for precision strikes on selected high value targets to change an ongoing situation on the ground. As of now details are not available. The US has also hinted at modulating the withdrawal to keep the Taliban at bay and presumably for intra Afghan talks to make some conclusive headway to avert civil war and chaos. Pakistan and other neighboring countries fear another influx of Afghan refugees—Pakistan already has over a million plus Afghan refugees. Pakistan must also worry about renewed terrorist activity from factions based in Afghanistan as the Taliban have not talked of ousting them and in fact may plan to use them as leverage. So far Pakistan has not talked of retaliating against such terrorist groups inside Afghanistan. In the past there have been sponsored covert and overt terrorist attacks with in Pakistan especially in, but not limited to, KPK and Baluchistan. Pakistan is one of the very few countries that has decisively defeated and side lined this threat through determined operations—it cannot allow such a threat to raise its head again.
In the final analysis. Pakistan, having stated its foreign policy goals in Afghanistan needs to continue its present focus on the many facets of its internal situation– the goal should be to lessen vulnerabilities, especially exploitable vulnerabilities, in the Afghan context. Pakistan needs to strengthen border controls and security. It needs to have a plan ready to manage and control refugees should there be an influx. Pakistan is correctly reaching out to the Central Asian States to coordinate future security arrangements. This should translate into excellent intelligence and surveillance capabilities should there be a need for overt or covert intervention against identified threats. For this coordination with the US can be a plus point. And for such an eventuality specific response capabilities may have to be strengthened. Pakistan must continue its ongoing support for peace in Afghanistan in its own interest without getting involved in rhetoric that can have its own escalatory ladder and may be an attempt to blame Pakistan for failures. The looming crisis can be an opportunity as well as a challenge. Fortunately, the present leadership is basing policies on past mistakes and the lessons learnt. An optimistic view could be that in the wake of the US withdrawal the Taliban are jockeying for the best possible position in intra-Afghan talks and that these talks will eventually succeed in bringing peace in Afghanistan.