US trapped between eternal war and an endgame in Afghanistan

AP file
AP file

More than a decade of steady Taleban advances on the ground have forced the US government into an old-fashioned cut-and-run.

By Shahab Jafry

Published: Sun 27 Jun 2021, 11:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Jun 2021, 3:05 PM

It’s not very long now before it becomes clear whether the Afghan endgame, as it is being called, will be a smooth one or not. Or whether it will be an endgame at all, not just another transition phase between wars that never seem to stop in that country. And since Pakistan always shares the spotlight with its western neighbour, for reasons everybody knows only too well, it’s no surprise that America’s announcement of its “complete withdrawal” date from Afghanistan coincided with a flurry of high-level flights from Washington to Islamabad.

That’s led to a lot of speculation about Pakistan’s possible role during and after the US pullout, of course, which is why it’s a good thing that Prime Minister Imran Khan made it crystal clear, in an oped piece in the Washington Post, that “We (Pakistan) have no favourites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people.” Before this a number of his earlier comments had given the impression that perhaps Pakistan was happy with the way the Taleban were allegedly exploiting the negotiations to come out on top when the Americans leave.

These days the biggest worry on everybody’s minds is that the Taleban will simply go back on their word after September 11, which is when all foreign forces will depart, and not just take over what few parts of the country they do not presently control but also storm the capital. Wouldn’t that make the architects of the war on terror, the longest and most expensive overseas US military engagement ever, look very silly? All those long years of “the good war” and everything that went into it only to see the Taleban force them out of the country and take it over once again?

On-ground developments only seem to confirm such fears. While the Taleban are clearly stalling the talks they have indeed strengthened their offensive on the battlefield ever since the Americans telegraphed the pullout date, taking over districts that surround provincial capitals and even the strategic border crossing with Tajikistan — a key trade route to Central Asia. What’s to stop them from going all the way now that they have everything on their side?

That is precisely what has got the Americans and Europeans falling all over themselves. They’re worried that the Taleban will take power again, ridicule the entire war effort, and make them the laughing stock of history. And they want Pakistan to stop them or control them or get its military to “use its influence” to get them to back down.

A little perspective helps here. The Taleban were the “forever enemy” and Pakistan was always suspected and accused of shielding and helping them till, suddenly, the Trump administration in the United States decided one fine day against throwing any more money to prop up the Afghan National Army (ANA) any longer. Then, quite unbelievably, they began negotiations with the insurgents without so much as talking to the legitimate Afghan government, also propped up by trillions of dollars of US aid, about talking to the Taleban. Pakistan helped, of course, by moving a few pieces across the board and releasing a few Taleban prisoners, and the whole thing finally got from the battlefield to the negotiating table.

No matter how western media tries to spin it, the fact of the matter is that more than a decade of steady Taleban advances on the ground have forced the US government into an old-fashioned cut-and-run. Now everybody, including Pakistan, is calling for a transitional government till a new one, one that features the Taleban as well, is cobbled together. That doesn’t sit too well with present Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who also fears that ending this war in this way is only a recipe for another 1990s like civil war that turned out to be more bloody and costly than even the Soviet invasion.

All things considered, it seems a safe bet that the Taleban will roll into Kabul not long after the Americans fly out of their country. But at this point anybody’s guess is as good as anybody else’s. So a lot remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the common people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer in one way or another, even though not many would remember or even know that all this started because once upon a time the Americans wanted Osama bin Laden out of their country and were willing to go to any length to satisfy their bloodlust.

PM Imran Khan is right to want to keep Pakistan as far away from all this as realistically possible.

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan

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