Afghanistan after the American Exit: “It’s Yesterday Once More”

By Mushahid Hussain*

As the longest war in American history comes to an inglorious end, the impact of the post-9/11 era will be felt far and wide, but more so in Pakistan, which has been in the eye of the storm since the 1979 Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan spawned instability and conflict in the region.

Pakistan, which has a 2640 kilometers long border with Afghanistan, has felt the direct fallout of the situation in Afghanistan during these past decades. Three aspects of Pakistan’s role and relationship with Afghanistan during this period are noteworthy. First, Pakistan has hosted the largest number of Afghan refugees for the longest duration in history, over 3 million, in fact, Pakistan has been a model host, allowing the refugees freedom of movement in a largely friction-free relationship with the local population.

Second, during the last big battle of the 20th Century, the US-led and Pakistan-supported Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Red Army, during almost a decade, Pakistan was the ‘frontline state’, acting as a conduit for the biggest covert operation after World War II. Over $ 5 billion were expended on training 200,000 Afghan Mujahideen and 20,000 Arab volunteers in the ‘Jehad against godless Communism’. Third, after the Soviet military defeat in 1989 and the subsequent American political exit from the region, Pakistan became the principal foreign stakeholder supporting the Afghan Taliban seize power in Kabul in 1996, and Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, were the three countries that recognised the Taliban regime till its overthrow by the United States soon after 9/11, when the US returned to Afghanistan and the region in a big way.

So, Afghanistan today is back to ‘square one’, as they say. A defeated superpower leaving a dangerous vacuum, with the Afghans left to fend for themselves, as was the case in 1989.
The last 20 years have proven to be an exercise in futility for the Americans, and an even far more frustrating experience than their military defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. Some interesting highlights prove this point:

— The US squandered $ 2.5 trillion in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, in what ultimately became an unwinnable war without end;
— at the peak of US/NATO involvement, the troop strength of the coalition forces was 165,000, representing over 40 countries;
— some 2448 Americans were killed and another 20,722  wounded, plus over a quarter of a million Afghans lost their lives during this period of conflict, where even the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ was used by the US;
— at the end of it all, for the first time in its history, the United States ended up having an unenviable distinction of signing a ‘peace’ agreement on February 29, 2020, with a non-state actor (Taliban), whom Washington had classified as a ‘terrorist Group’!

Despite the American military exit from Afghanistan, which will be completed at the end of August, the US is only ending the war in Afghanistan, not leaving the region. The US military will retain an ‘over the horizon’ military capability via its 22 military bases in the vicinity of Afghanistan, located in UAE, Qatar and Jordan, beefed up by air and naval power in the Arabian Sea, a total of 22,000 US military personnel.

During this period, Pakistan as a ‘frontline state in the war on terror’, lost 75,000 soldiers and civilians, incurred a grand total loss of approximately $ 150 billion in economic, military and infrastructure losses. As an ally of the US, Pakistan handed over 600 Al Qaeda leaders to the US, while killing another 1100 Al Qaeda operatives, terrorists and leaders during military operations after 9/11. This same period saw the infusion of some $ 20 billion in American assistance to Pakistan: $ 11 billion in economic aid and $ 9 billion in military assistance.
Given this context, now that a vacuum exists in Afghanistan after the US departure, what are Pakistan’s core concerns and fears in the emerging scenario.

There is also the 22-page 28th Report from the UN Security Council Analytical Support & Sanctions Monitoring Team on Afghanistan, made public on July 26, 2021, which says that over 6000 fully-armed Pakistani terrorists have sought sanctuary inside Afghanistan. According to the Pakistani government, many of these terrorists work as proxies for India against Pakistan. So this is Pakistan’s primary concern: use of Afghan territory to destabilise Pakistan.
Secondly, should another civil war erupt in Afghanistan, in the absence of a consensus on a future transitional government, there is the fear in Pakistan of a new influx of Afghan refugees, on top of the 3 million already residing in Pakistan.

Finally, given the linguistic and ethnic makeup of Afghanistan, which defines its polarised polity, with armed militia groups representing their respective ethnicity, there is the Pakistani concern that the unity, territorial integrity and independence of Afghanistan must be paramount, otherwise it would be a recipe for disaster for the entire region.

Hence, Pakistan is endeavouring to work closely with other partners, notably, China, the United States, Russia, and other neighbours of Afghanistan, plus the parties in Afghanistan, for an avoidance of the worst-case scenario, particularly seeking  a ceasefire, and  infra-Afghan talks leading to a transitional government.

Here it would be interesting to analyse the American perspective on Afghanistan, which will also impact on the situation.

President Biden held a detailed press conference on Afghanistan on July 8 at the White House where he outlined the US vision for Afghanistan’s future. A few takeaways from his press conference are noteworthy. Biden said ‘the Taliban is at its strongest military since 2001’.

 Then he even questioned the viability of the Afghan state, stating the reason why he opposed any permanent American military presence in Afghanistan was that, since ‘no nation has ever unified Afghanistan. No nation. Empires have gone there and not done it.’ And then came the punchline, justifying his decision to leave Afghanistan, when he said that ‘we also need to focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China … that is really going to determine our future.’ China has become the principal obsession of the US Administration sparking speculation that another Cold War may well be in the offing, with President Biden busy recruiting allies from India to Australia for the ‘containment of China.’

So with the situation inside Afghanistan unpredictable, and Afghanistan at the crossroads of big power rivalry, US, China and Russia, plus regional competitors, India versus Pakistan, and Iran versus Saudi Arabia, and Turkey also flexing its military muscle with the offer to provide security for Kabul International Airport, the situation can best be summed by the title of a once-famous American song that was so aptly titled:
“It’s Yesterday Once More”.

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* Pakistani senator Mushahid Hussain was Bureau Chief in Islamabad of Inter Press Service (IPS) during 1987-1997 & in 2014. He launched the first Public Hearings on Environment & Climate Change in the Pakistan Parliament. As Senator, he chairs the Senate Sub Committee on ‘Green and Clean Islamabad’ which has launched a campaign to ban plastic use in the Pakistani capital.