In an agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020, the United States agreed to withdraw its armed forces from Afghanistan by May this year. US President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to uphold this peace deal, but faces some difficult challenges as violence remains high and little progress has been made in intra-Afghan talks.
In order to make an American withdrawal more practicable and not to abandon the US-Taliban agreement entirely, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has presented a revised peace plan with a preliminary formula for sharing power and a proposal to include the most important countries in the region. The developments in the coming weeks will decide whether the Biden administration can meet the withdrawal period. However, after 20 years it is clear that no government in Afghanistan can be successful without the participation of the Taliban and that no peace process in Afghanistan can be successful without the full support of Pakistan.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States were all instrumental in helping the Afghans repel the Soviets from Afghanistan and end the Cold War. However, Afghanistan was torn apart by bloody fighting after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The chaos allowed al-Qaeda to flourish and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to implement its global terrorist agenda. Heroin flowed to neighboring countries, particularly Iran. When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, the group managed to curb opium production, but their rule was ruthlessly repressive, especially against women. As the conflict subsided, India and Iran continued to wage proxy wars against the Taliban. When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 and Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused to hand over bin Laden to the United States, it took only two months to overthrow the Taliban. However, they were far from being defeated.
For the next two decades, relations between the United States and Pakistan were dominated by the situation in Afghanistan, and were often plagued by hostilities and allegations of duplicity. Americans were angry that Pakistanis would not crack down on Taliban hideouts in Pakistan, especially the infamous Haqqani network, and the Americans argued that safe havens in Pakistan prevented a US military victory in Afghanistan. Americans mistakenly believed that their billions of dollars in coalition funding for the Pakistani military would give them enough leverage to achieve the United States’ strategic goals.
But Americans soon accused Pakistan of not doing enough to solve its own terrorist problem. Pakistan, in turn, saw the ongoing debates in the United States over troop strength, volatility, and factionalism in Kabul as evidence that US politics were unpredictable and that the theater of war could expand to Pakistan. If the Taliban were there anyway, Pakistan would be forced to keep dealing with them.
The Pakistani leadership has argued time and again that their inability to pursue the Afghan Taliban in search of refuge on their soil was not a matter of will but of capacity. The Pakistani military fought simultaneously with an increasingly hostile India and an ongoing insurgent threat in Balochistan Province, which it believed was fueled by India. While Pakistan continues to have influence over the Taliban, more pressure on the group could have brought them even closer to other countries that also established ties with them after the US invasion.
From a Pakistani point of view, the United States made two fundamental mistakes: the first was not to distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Taliban; and the second was the United States’ decision to exclude the Taliban from the government-formation process under the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which sought to restore government institutions after the US invasion.
Last year, Pakistan was the main actor in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Given the endangered US withdrawal agreement, Pakistan is now likely to put pressure on the Taliban to honor its commitments. But the truth is that every day a political agreement is delayed, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban is being undermined.
The peace process is fragile and the Afghan army and NATO forces are still fighting the Taliban. Although US forces have not been targeted recently, if the peace talks collapse there is a risk of attacks against Americans spiking, making US withdrawal even more difficult. Persistent destabilization in Afghanistan would worsen Pakistan’s internal security situation and trigger another wave of Afghan refugees. Pakistan still has an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees within its borders; A stable Afghanistan would give them the opportunity to finally return home. A renewed instability in Afghanistan would bring violence to the border cities of Pakistan and exclude any prospect of bilateral trade.
In recent years, Pakistan has made strides against its domestic terrorist threat, avoiding the unification of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Importantly, the Pakistani security company has also continued to improve its nuclear command and control processes and improved the ranking of the country’s Nuclear Safety Index.
Pakistan plays an important strategic and economic role in Asia, and it would be important that the United States turn its attention to Pakistan for that reason alone. But renewed fighting in Afghanistan will make this far more difficult. The destabilization in Afghanistan serves neither Pakistan nor the vital interests of the United States. The question now is what practical steps could be taken to improve peace chances in Afghanistan.
Given the poor outcome of the Qatar talks, the Biden Peace Plan proposes that Turkey hold Afghan peace dialogues. Russia has also announced plans to convene another peace conference on March 18. While various regional actors try to reaffirm their relevance to ongoing developments in Afghanistan, the need for a negotiated solution between Afghans remains the top priority. Biden’s plan to replace the Afghan government with an interim administration to share power pending elections under a new constitution was not well received by the Afghan president. The fact remains, however, that the Taliban will need to be housed in a new power-sharing arrangement and a transitional government is a good way to do that until another round of elections can be held. The talks between the American diplomat Zalmay Khalizad and the Afghan government and the Taliban as well as with Pakistani interlocutors will prove to be decisive in finding a political solution to this urgently needed transitional arrangement.
The Biden Plan also provides for an expansion of international mediation efforts under the auspices of the United Nations, involving other regional actors such as Russia, India, China and Iran. Crucially, only the United Nations can implement “the robust regional diplomatic strategy” that everyone agrees is necessary for lasting peace in Afghanistan, but no single country can achieve it. This is also a good time to lay the foundations for a reinforced United Nations aid mission in Afghanistan, which will be required years after an agreement has been concluded to facilitate political cohesion and, in coordination with other UN agencies, conditions for one to create sustainable peace.
International efforts to stabilize Afghanistan also require other important components, including an economic plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan. As in any other post-conflict situation, job creation will be critical to success. Several proposals have been made over the past 20 years to better align the Pakistani and Afghan economies and create jobs in both countries. The discussion about US trade concessions for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, which would create jobs and attract investment, needs to be revised. The US can play an important role in revitalizing the Afghan-Pakistani transit trade agreement, along with other promising infrastructure investments in the border region.
Afghanistan needs a long-term security plan that includes technical and material assistance to the Afghan army and police for the years to come, as well as improved security on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Americans’ greatest strategic concern is that Afghanistan will once again host al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, which will be able to launch attacks against the United States and its allies.
There needs to be an open discussion on a follow-up counter-terrorism strategy between the United States, Pakistan and NATO in the event of a terrorist surge in Afghanistan. In the long term, Afghan and Pakistani counter-terrorism cooperation would also prove beneficial. However, this requires assurances that neither side will allow their territory to be used as a launch pad for cross-border attacks.
It is in the mutual interest of Pakistan and the United States to stabilize Afghanistan and ensure that global jihadist networks across the region are not profitable. Despite turbulent times, Pakistan and the United States have a long history of bilateral relations that preceded counter-terrorism cooperation. In a recent February 8 interview at the Middle East Institute, Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, recognized Pakistan not only as critical to the future of Afghanistan, but also as “one of the pivotal points of the world today”.
The imminent need for US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not diminished the value of bilateral cooperation between Pakistan and the United States. Instead, it improved it.