US withdrawal will test the region’s fault lines- Yasmeen Aftab Ali

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Biden’s commitment to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 comes without any strings attached. There are no conditions, such as placing responsibility upon the Taliban to ensure that no non-state actors (like Al Qaeda) take refuge in the country and/or use Afghan soil against the US and its allies in any form.

The absence of pre-conditions is to help create an “independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic, neutral and self-sufficient Afghanistan”. Is this feasible, however? Many questions need to be answered.

The Taliban are stronger today than ever before. “Many experts say the Taliban is a powerful fighting force that threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security. The group has withstood counterinsurgency operations from the world’s most powerful security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and three US administrations in a war that has killed more than 6,000 US troops and contractors and over 1,100 NATO troops. Some 46,000 civilians have died, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers have been killed since 2007”, according to the latest Council on Foreign Relations update of March 15.

Over the years, the group has attacked Afghan security forces with deadly consequences. The UN Taliban monitoring team, in a 2020 report, strongly maintained that the Taliban continue to have strong interactions with Al Qaeda and that this did not stop during the group’s own consultations with the US.

International media are reporting that those stationed “of the record” will stay in Afghanistan. According to the NYT, these include “elite Army Rangers working for both the Pentagon and the CIA” as well as civilian contractors. Yet involving private military contractors or otherwise does not bode well for the country

Biden’s blank cheque to the Taliban removes any pressure on them to come to some kind of understanding with the Afghan government. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken earlier suggested a 90-day ceasefire, holding a mutually agreed upon ‘going forward’ plan for Afghanistan involving the US, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan as well as India. There was also a hint of a meeting between Turkey, Kabul and the Taliban on an interim set up. These proposals were aimed at containing the fallout of international forces quitting Afghanistan – yet neither holds any currency in light of Biden’s announcement. This open-ended agreement will test the region’s fault lines to the limit.

After the US exit – the war waged by the Taliban will be pushed forward to its ‘logical end’. Indeed, the group already considers itself the victor. If the Afghan government can hold them off in the long-term, it will be a miracle.

Pakistan is feeling hot under her collar. The eruption of a civil war post-US departure is a distinct possibility and any overflow of refugees on to Pakistani soil will be an unwelcome outcome. The country is still struggling with the economic burden of the first Afghan war. It certainly cannot deal with a second onslaught. Moreover, Pakistan is struggling to achieve economic stability and is halfway through an IMF loan programme and the prospect therefore of a deluge of refugees, embedded with possible militant sleeper cells, will be an unwanted headache for Pakistan, especially if its soil is misused by these miscreants.

India’s concerns have grown. The country no established role in the way that Afghanistan’s future is being shaped. New Delhi also believes that anti-Indian groups like Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) and Laskhar- e-Taiba (LeT) have laid down roots in Afghanistan and will strike at the right moment. This has the potential to start another blame game, with India targeting Pakistan unendingly. Islamabad will not support these outfits for obvious reasons. But that will not stop India from the tirade.

China’s interests lie in a stable Afghanistan. A shrewd player of international economics that drives its politics, Beijing is well aware that any fallout from Afghanistan will have a negative impact on Pakistan. China does not want any delays on CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) as a result of neighbouring unrest.

For Russia, the defeat of US represents the sweetest fruit. Moscow has experienced and swallowed the bitter taste of defeat in Afghanistan, too, and will not be interested in boots on ground; likely preferring more of a business-based relationship with the Taliban. On the other hand, the Taliban see Russia as a prospective partner who will not badger them on human rights issues. Both can work well together.

News outlets, however, report that while US troops are departing, those stationed “of the record” will stay. According to the NYT, these include “elite Army Rangers working for both the Pentagon and the CIA. More troops will remain positioned in neighbouring countries, and attack planes will be within rapid reach, forewarned of ‘insurgent fighters’ by armed surveillance drones. Civilian contractors may also play a role on the ground.”

Involving either private military or civilian contractors in the Afghan war does not bode well. First, it can lead to financial and operational headaches. Biden will do well to recall that Washington filed a suit against DynCorp International for alleged over-billing during a four-year period in Iraq where it was under contract with the US State Department to train the Iraqi police. Second, it can cause diplomatic headaches. Security contractors do not have the locus standi to engage governments of other nations in negotiations and eliminating the same stakeholders that the US had previously been fighting cannot result in a political settlement. A war that is outsourced lacks transparency and is not interwoven with the long- and short-term objectives of its employer. Thus, the hiring of mercenaries is in direct conflict with recognised peace efforts.

These firms are not cognisant of the laws of war. The world today is one that is legally accountable – any misstep caused by security contractors (history proves there were numerous with disastrous consequences) can lead to a diplomatic mess. Third, the presence of security contractors in lieu of US soldiers will not offer a degree of comfort to the local population either, many of whom remember with resentment and unease their earlier stints in Afghanistan. A CIA contractor, working in the country in June 2003, was charged with the death of an Afghan detainee in his custody. This was the first conviction of its kind.

The region needs to respond to the US exit from Afghanistan in such a way that its fault lines are not tested to maximum.