The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse with each passing day as the Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces are engaged in fierce fighting, resulting in hundreds of deaths as the remaining around 4,500 US troops are making a swift exit from the war-devastated country to complete their withdrawal by September. The Taliban are making gains, while the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are also giving a hard time to them.
In the rapidly deteriorating situation of Afghanistan, serious concerns have emerged for Pakistan. In case the Taliban are able to run over the entire country after the foreign forces’ withdrawal, they would establish their rule. However, in this situation stability would be a pipedream. On the other hand, if the fighting continues between the Afghan national forces and the Taliban, the crisis would result in more and more refugees, who would head towards Pakistan, which is already under an unbearable burden of millions of registered and unregistered Afghan people. Then, as has been the case in the past, facing instability in Afghanistan, the Afghan intelligence and security establishment would carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in Pakistan. So, in any scenario in Afghanistan, whether the Taliban ultimately dominate or the Afghan forces come out triumphant, the repercussions for Afghanistan and then for Pakistan would be monumentally consequential.
There is a very important aspect of the crisis and conflict in Afghanistan. The Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani cannot be considered the true representative of all Afghans. The Taliban have a huge following among Afghans and that has been the main reason that they could not be defeated by the foreign forces, whose number at one point in time in 2010 had reached around 100,000, backed by more than 300, 000 ANSF personnel. But at the same time, it is important to note that the Taliban’s claim of being the only representative group of Afghans is equally fallacious. Both Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban leadership realise that they singlehandedly cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. This has been the assessment of the United States and even now Pakistan, which has been backing the Taliban wholeheartedly. Therefore, as a lasting solution to almost 40 years of seemingly interminable conflict in Afghanistan, the only plausible and workable solution is that the main power holders in Afghanistan shall come together and agree to a power-sharing arrangement in the shape of a broad-based government.
The conflict in Afghanistan is another important dimension that is the ethnic mix of the country’s population. While the country is dominated by Pashtuns, whether President Ashraf Ghani or the Taliban, as they are entirely ethnically Pashtuns, there are important and large minorities, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen and even Balochs. As the Taliban have been fighting all other ethnic groups as well as non-Taliban Pashtuns, their rivals also have serious schisms. Therefore, there is no easy way out of the Afghan imbroglio.
A very important and serious development regarding Afghanistan has been the vivid change in Pakistan’s policy towards it. Pakistan has always been considered the most important neighbour of Afghanistan, particularly since the dismemberment of the erstwhile Soviet Union, which was a gigantic northern neighbour of Afghanistan. Islamabad has also been considered the crucial factor in the stability and instability in Afghanistan. While Pakistan has been making its efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, it has always wanted that peace and stability must be from its perspective and under its guidance. In other words, Pakistan wanted peace and stability in Afghanistan on its own terms, so that the latter may not become a security threat to the former because Islamabad also has a big and critical rival in the shape of India. To keep history in perspective, it was Afghanistan that started animosity with Pakistan by refusing to recognize it at the floor of the UN in September 1947. Moreover, since the 1980s, Pakistan not only wanted Afghanistan not to become a security threat to it but also to become a strategic depth for it vis-à-vis India. Pakistan has, over the decades, learnt an important lesson that Afghanistan is such a place which instead of becoming a strategic depth could become a strategic quagmire for it. This seems to have really happened. While Pakistani strategists once wanted to have open borders with Afghanistan, sanity started prevailing among policy circles in Islamabad and after paying a great cost of lives and economic devastation, they came to the conclusion that such an open border policy, if continued, would wreak further havoc. The policy of open borders in pursuance of Pakistan’s strategic depth policy in Afghanistan resulted in incalculable damage to the country. Ultimately, it was decided that the strategic depth policy would be abandoned and consequently it started fencing the 2,640km-long Afghanistan border. Fortunately, the fencing has been completed after years of heroics, hard work and heavy losses of lives of Pakistani soldiers. The fencing has always been needed, not only because the ill-effects of the Afghanistan situation have inflicted colossal losses of men and material on Pakistan, but also that Kabul has never recognized the Durand Line as an international border between the two countries.
Prime Minister Imran Khan rightly said recently that if the Taliban captured entire Afghanistan by force of arms, it would lead to massive bloodletting. This is a completely correct analysis of the situation. Therefore, he called upon the US to first have a political settlement of the Afghanistan issue before leaving the country. However, it is too late for the Americans to revisit their stated line of action in Afghanistan. It is important to note that unlike the general perception around the world as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular, the Afghan Taliban are no more dependent upon Pakistan to fall in line with whatever Islamabad tells them. It is because most of the Taliban leadership is no longer in Pakistan, rather they have relocated or have been moved by Washington to Qatar, where they have a “political” office. From the Qatar base, the Taliban have been negotiating with the Americans, resulting in the 2020 agreement between the two sides. Since September last, the Taliban have been engaged in talks with the Afghan government from Qatar. So, Pakistan has little control over the Taliban now. Moreover, while the Taliban have been asking Pakistan to put its weight behind reviving Emirat-e-Islami Afghanistan (EIA), the official Afghan state during the rule of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001, but Pakistan has unequivocally refused it. It has created a lot of anger among the Taliban against their benefactors in Pakistan. Thus, once back in power against expectations, the Taliban would not toe the line of Pakistan. Pakistan knows it quite well, therefore, expectations from the Taliban are not high in Islamabad.