South Asia

Pakistan Remains the Arsonist and the Fireman in Afghanistan as Biden Withdraws US Forces

Retaining the tiny US military footprint would at least have kept in check a more overt involvement from Pakistan, which has relentlessly prosecuted a bloody covert war through its Taliban proxy for decades.

Over a month after United States President Joe Biden announced his decision to end what he calls a ‘forever war’ and withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, other elements of his controversial plan and its impact have started to become clear.

Biden intends to extricate some 2,500 American troops who are on the ground in Afghanistan, leaving a small force to guard the US diplomatic mission in Kabul. Its NATO allies – whose troops currently outnumber the US 3-to-1 – will follow suit. While there is no specific policy or information emerging about the civilian contractors working with the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) in crucial logistical support roles, they may be next on the exit ramp once the formal military footprint is wrapped up.

Citing “an increasingly uncertain security environment”, Australia announced a temporary closure of its embassy in Kabul – a move which has the potential of creating a domino effect for scores of diplomatic missions as well as governmental and non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan.

Afghan leaders know the risks

The Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani has put on a brave face so far. In an op-ed, Ghani called the Biden decision ‘a turning point for the country and our neighbours’, and stated that ‘the Afghan government respects the decision and views it as a moment of both opportunity and risk for itself, for Afghans, for the Taliban, and for the region.’

The second part of the statement, however, rings truer than the first. The way the Biden – and before him the Trump – administration cut the Afghan government out of its parleys with the Taliban, and subsequently signed a so-called peace deal was effectively a surrender document that gave Taliban everything it wanted, including from Kabul, without conceding even an inch to either the US or Afghan governments. And with the announcement of a firm withdrawal date, the Biden administration has removed any and all doubts that the Taliban might have had about the US plans.

The result, as expected, has been the Taliban dragging its feet over talks with the Afghan government, while ramping up its armed campaign through both conventional guerilla tactics as well as brutal terrorist attacks. Of course, in the latter case, it disowns largescale attacks against civilians like the recent one on a Hazara Shia girls’ school, affording the zealots a level of plausible deniability.

What is clear though is that the Taliban has not morphed into a political outfit capable or desirous of engaging meaningfully with the Kabul dispensation, or for that matter the world at large. It seems to have decided its own and the country’s fate through war. The recent surge in Taliban attacks after the 3-day Eid ceasefire is an indication that a long and bloody year lies ahead. Government forces have had success in beating the Taliban back in some areas but elsewhere reports of surrenders are also coming through. The evolving pattern of belligerence seems like a throwback to the 1990s, when communist leader Mohammad Najibullah’s government remained in power after the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 and stepped down some months after the disintegration of the USSR.

Najibullah’s government fell in 1992 only after the external financial and military support eventually dried out. But in the interregnum, the communist government had held on to Kabul as well as the garrison cities in the provinces, while the Islamist Mujahideen trying to topple it, held sway over the countryside. The post-US withdrawal war between the ANDSF and the Taliban is likely to follow the same pattern. While the Taliban and its Pakistani patrons are likely to try and consolidate the Taliban sway over the southern and then the eastern provinces, especially the ones contiguous to Kabul, before taking a lunge at the capital, the government forces would try to pick their battles carefully in the periphery but consolidate and dig in around Kabul.

Undermining Afghanistan’s official forces

By removing international forces from providing even advice and logistical support, the Biden administration is really undermining the ANDSF’s fighting capability. After all, it has been the Afghan, not western troops, doing the bulk of fighting for the past several years. But the support provided by the US and NATO in many areas, especially from the air, has been crucial to the ANDSF’s fighting ability. Unfortunately, highly irresponsible verbiage has been coming out of Biden’s Pentagon such as about the US attempts to “wean the Afghan military off US air force support”. A US military commander or politician would never propose that US ground troops be weaned off air power, in a theater like Afghanistan where terrain, weather and the type of enemy, makes air support critical for both a rapid tactical response and medical evacuations.

While the nascent Afghan air force is flying on its own, it relies on foreign advisors and contractors to keep its meagre aerial assets functional. It is loose ends like these that the Biden plan has failed to tie. Though the US has pledged so-called over-the-horizon support, meaning drones and other planes flown from offshore aircraft carriers moving to the Arabian Sea or from distant bases, the long distances and logistical challenges would limit the operating time of these aircraft over Afghanistan.

A more prudent approach would have led to the US retaining a couple of all-purpose bases in Afghanistan to obviate the need for reliance on regional neighbours. A base in the north and one in the south, for example Bagram and Kandahar, respectively, to mitigate against weather patterns, could have sufficed. But the Biden administration’s thinking, contrary to military advice, appears to have been that any continued presence would be costly as well as serve as a red rag to the Taliban bull which would then continue to charge on. The Taliban clearly are not keen on ending their fight, at least against fellow Afghans. Handing its bases to the ANDSF does allow the US to get the Taliban off its back, allowing a bloodless withdrawal. But as the surge in Taliban violence shows, they have no intention of making peace with the Afghan people.

The irony is that were its military contingent to remain in Afghanistan, its cost and size would have been a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars the US spends on keeping 55,000 troops in Japan, 38,000 in Germany or 28,000 in South Korea. Biden’s “forever war” thesis is also flawed given the nature of the conflict in which the US role has already been reduced to support and logistics. At best, the US involvement on the ground in Afghanistan for the past several years has remained a protracted campaign, not a war. And certain indolent conflicts cannot be ended by planting a victory flag; they have to be actively managed on an ongoing basis. Retaining the tiny US military footprint would at least have kept in check a more overt involvement from Pakistan, which has relentlessly prosecuted a bloody covert war through its Taliban proxy for decades. But it seems that Biden is sticking to his calculus that he, as vice president, had presented to the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

The problem is Pakistan 

Steve Coll notes that the mercurial Afghan leader had pressed Biden to use US leverage to curtail the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan, to which Biden had brusquely responded: “Mr. President, Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan for the United States.” The gist of Biden’s message, Karzai concluded, was that “the Taliban is your problem, Al Qaeda is our problem.”

Be that as it may, it is also a fact that this most important country also has the dubious distinction of being the only US ally to enable the Taliban to kill thousands of American soldiers, while collecting tens of billions of US dollars in aid. And there is absolutely no doubt that scores of these attacks were joint Taliban and al-Qaeda operations. In fact, the Biden administration has chosen to ignore clear warnings, which poured in right after it assumed power, that al-Qaeda remains joined at the hip with the Taliban, shares sanctuaries and logistics with them, and is counting on the latter’s military success in Afghanistan to lift its sagging fortunes and profile.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration is keen on doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. It is talking to Pakistan’s army, which rules the country through a hybrid martial law, to continue using the land conduits and air corridors for egress, and potentially for situations where US troops may have to be inserted back into Afghanistan.

Buoyed at its perceived victory in Afghanistan and tired of the stingy paymaster that China has turned out to be, the Pakistani brass is telling the US what it wants to hear. It would be yet another chapter in the sordid saga where Pakistan plays host to both Taliban leaders and cadres as well as US service men and women, whom the former have been killing in Afghanistan. A former US ambassador, Peter Tomsen, was almost prophetic when he warned in his 2011 book The Wars of Afghanistan, “If Pakistan hews to its fireman and arsonist policy in Afghanistan, the Obama administration will likely make little progress in Afghanistan.” He had accurately noted: “The most valuable contribution that America can make to Afghan peace lies not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan”.

Voices like Ambassador Tomsen’s were never heeded in Washington, and Pakistan successfully dragged its feet on taking any action against the Afghan jihadists that it has harboured. On the contrary, Joe Biden is about to solemnise Pakistan’s dual role of arsonist and fireman in Afghanistan.

For now, the Biden administration does not see al-Qaeda or any other transnational jihadist as its problem. In fact, they may be seeing it as a problem that would remain confined to Afghanistan or menace its northern neighbours and perhaps China. But then again, who would have thought that al-Qaeda would become a problem for mainland America when the US walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and eventually left the country completely to Pakistan’s devices after the Taliban takeover in 1996.

The problem with ideological pyres is that they don’t remained confined within frontiers. If the Taliban were to upend the existing order in Afghanistan by force, the first country to feel its jihadist blowback would be Pakistan, just as it did before. It is a foregone conclusion that any jihadist victory in Afghanistan would buoy the fraternal extremists first in the region, and then around the world. The fall of the Soviet Union and their battles against the Red Army had instantly become a subject of jihadist lore and remained so since. The humiliating surrender of another superpower will inevitably serve to glorify jihadist terrorism for another generation. In its infinite wisdom, the Biden administration has chosen September 11,2021 as the date to mark the end of the US war in Afghanistan. One certainly hopes that it does not become another red letter day on the international jihadist calendar.

From here on out, the Afghans and the Afghan state would be fighting a war not just to preserve their sovereignty and hard-won civil liberties but also to stymie a perfidious transnational jihadist movement that pretends to be local. In this effort, they would need all the help that other regional powers can muster.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.