Joe Biden told Fox News reporter that US involvement in Afghanistan was a counter terrorism operation and not a nation building attempt. Let Afghans fight their own war. No one can fault Joe Biden. But when viewed in the context that USA has left the largest cache of sophisticated weapons in the hands of terrorist Taliban, the statement by the President of the United States falls flat.
USA in doing so has not only failed itself but also created favourable situation for terror to spread far and wide, USA included. Counter terror operation has become pro-terror. The failed US misadventure in Afghanistan might have a silver lining for India. US-PAK relations should/will head southward. Hopefully track-2 diplomacy by India will lead to friendly relations with the new Afghan regime in the long term.
Afghanistan is in turmoil, perhaps worse than what happened anywhere during 2nd World War because then one was fighting a clearly defined enemy. Ordinary Afghan does not know who to fight and who to trust. In recent times (post 2nd WW) there has never been a situation in any country when citizens were begging to be taken out of their parent nation. Dark shadows of oppressive Taliban regime still loom large. Women are the worst affected.
In a show of extreme compassion to Afghan nationals, who helped US/NATO forces fight and survive for 20 years, an American citizen is offering to take an Afghan out at a ‘nominal’ cost of USD 6500 per person. And these are champion of human rights! On the other hand, former Secretary of State Ms Hillary Clinton has offered to fly ‘Afghan women at risk’ for free, if only these brave women can reach Kabul airport safely.
As of now the first dead line is 31stAugust, 2021. Taliban has unequivocally stated that the evacuation must be completed by that date. Recent reports confirm that Afghan citizens are no longer being allowed to proceed to Kabul airport. US/NATO troops are still long way from being airlifted.
How will Taliban react if foreign troops/citizens still remain in Afghanistan? Will there be bloodshed? Taliban may, rather will, exercise their option to shoot down US/NATO airplanes involved in evacuation beyond 31st August. Biden has already forewarned that any such response from Taliban will be reciprocated with immediate bombing missions.
Immediate issue on 01 September will be control of Kabul airport. Current situation does not augur well and peaceful takeover of Kabul airport by Taliban may not be possible. Will Taliban extend the deadline for evacuation? Extremely unlikely! US/NATO troops final departure from Kabul will not be as simple as it was from Bagram at dead of night. Few countries viz Canada has already announced completion of lifting Canadian troops out of Kabul. Evacuation is no longer a combined US/NATO operation; every country for itself.
USA would never have imagined the repercussions/consequences of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Every nation of the world is openly cursing USA for endangering lives of citizens of every country, who are in Afghanistan. A British General has gone on record to say that ‘Biden should be Court Martialed’. US leadership failed to assess speed of Taliban march through the country.
US assumption that Afghan military trained by them will offer substantial resistance was flawed to the core. One is left wondering that a super power failed to consider the consequences of Afghan military deliberately not offering any resistance to their brethren. How and where did Taliban survive for twenty long years? That brings Pakistan into focus.
Speed of Taliban march proves two things; firstly, Taliban were existing as a cohesive group and secondly, they were adequately equipped with modern weapons. How could that have happened? One does not need to do a research to conclude that Taliban were flourishing in safe sanctuary provided by Pakistan for past few decades.
In spite of finding Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, US leadership failed to comprehend that ‘cradle of terror’ was directly assisting Taliban. Safe sanctuary in Pakistan kept Taliban safe from US attacks confined to within Afghanistan. It is rather late to view Taliban advance as an offshoot of Pakistan double crossing USA. Repeated Pak assertion that it wants a peaceful Afghanistan is a hoax.
Pakistan has always benefitted due to turmoil in Afghanistan. USA pumped in huge quantities of modern weapons through Pakistan to Afghan militia fighting Russians. It is a well known fact that huge quantities of weapons were kept within Pakistan.
US-Pakistan relations are headed southward and about to hit rock bottom. Pak PM is, perhaps, the only executive head of state in the region, who has not received a call from POTUS, Joe Biden. It is another matter that CIA chief made a secret visit to Pakistan. Pak FM and Secretary of State have spoken to each other on more than one occasion. Defence Secretary has called Pakistan a useful non NATO ally.
But none of this absolves Pakistan having been instrumental in keeping Taliban alive and kicking. Prevailing tension between USA and China and ever increasing bonhomie between China and Pakistan is widening the gulf of distrust between USA and Pakistan. Pakistan direct involvement in protecting Taliban will almost certainly force US administration to review its policy of appeasement towards Pakistan. Violence in Afghanistan after 31st August, if it happens, will further dissuade USA to engage with Pakistan.
Taliban control over Afghanistan will act as a catalyst for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to resume their activities more vigorously. Without doubt TTP will receive support from Taliban in Afghanistan. In spite of close contact between ISI of Pakistan and Taliban leadership, Pakistan has felt threatened by TTP activities in Balochistan, and Pashtun dominated northwest region. Resurgent TTP will have unfavourable consequences for Pakistan. After all Pakistan will face the ‘music’ for helping Taliban to flourish.
It is a matter of time before Taliban regime starts getting approval as a legitimate government. Pakistan, Iran and China followed by Russia might be the first group of nations to recognize Taliban government in Afghanistan. Iran has already recommenced crude supply to Afghanistan. Humanitarian aid likely in coming days/weeks/months will only embolden Taliban to enforce primitive laws as it had done earlier.
Irrespective of international pressure, Pakistan will find it nearly impossible to keep away from developments in Afghanistan. TTP will, almost certainly, up the ante in coming days. Therefore Pakistan will be pre occupied with handling of TTP activities and will be unable to help USA in controlling/containing violence in Afghanistan and ensuring that counter terrorism operations are sustained at same level as in pre withdrawal period.
Top functionaries in US administration have clearly enunciated that USA lost the war against Taliban because Taliban found support and sanctuary in Pakistan. Safe heaven was not only provided to Osama but also to Haqqani network. Pakistan has openly supported Afghan Taliban but has been averse to TTP enlarging its base in Pakistan. TTP has been involved in killing of thousands of Pakistanis.
Pak military undertook extensive operations to eliminate TTP elements but could not do so successfully because TTP sought refuge in Afghanistan, when in the corner. Pakistan, therefore, has a ‘Hobson’s choice’ of befriending Afghan Taliban hoping that TTP will be controlled by Afghan Taliban. Will it be effective is anybody’s guess? Befriending of new Taliban regime by Pakistan will invite instant/immediate reprisal from USA.
Situation in Afghanistan will remain fluid and unpredictable even after 31st August. Taliban are not the unopposed rulers of Afghanistan. The fringe groups will enter the fray after foreign troops have left or 31st August, whichever is earlier. Latest terror group to join the ranks is ISIS-K (Islamic State of Khorasan), which is a breakaway faction of Taliban. ISIS-K has been involved in brutal attacks, most prominent being assault on a maternity hospital.
USA and Pakistan are on collision course over controlling Taliban. Pakistan has unambiguously clarified its stand and cannot do anything more. Pak FM has been called as FM of Taliban by former vice president of Afghanistan. US support to Pakistan over past six decades has been overlooked by current Pak leadership. It is an extremely favourable development for India. Stoppage of US weapons and financial assistance to Pakistan is absolutely essential for peace in this region.
While media has been reporting exclusion of India from various negotiations/talks on finding solution to Taliban crisis, it is almost certain that ‘track-2’ diplomacy must be in place about Indo-Afghan relations. Waning Pak influence on Taliban should be good news for India. Strategic patience, for once, might be our only option. Taliban hierarchy will have to take the lead if India’s continued assistance to develop infra structure in Afghanistan is desired. China is more than eager to walk into Afghanistan. Pak support to Chinese in Afghanistan will further alineate USA.
Taliban will have to demonstrate to the rest of the world that they are in control. If they fail to administer, chaos in Afghanistan will destroy Afghanistan as a nation. Total control over Kabul will be the first acid test for Taliban. Opening of establishments and near normal daily life for an ordinary citizen will be essential to infuse confidence. Opponents of moderate Taliban will, almost certainly resort to violence viz suicide attacks, atrocities on women etc.
Hopefully Kabul airport will continue to remain functional to enable evacuation. Power failure at airport can/will bring night operations to grinding halt.
If USA had decided to pull out immediately after killing Osama, they would have been the cynosure of all eyes. Now even the families of US soldiers, who died in Afghanistan are cursing US administration of past 20 years.
Kabul Airlift will go down as the greatest event, even greater than any such event during two world wars.
Making any prediction in such unstable state is fraught with guestimate being entirely off the screen. However following might be the future.
Indo-Afghan (read Taliban) relations will slowly but surely improve. It will be mutually beneficial. US-Pak relations will stagnate in short term and will be headed southward in long term. In the unlikely event of Pakistan gaining confidence of Taliban, terror activities in the region will increase substantially. Instability in Afghanistan will/may lead to;
- Extremely high probability of suicide attack outside as well as inside Kabul airport.
- Shooting down of a departing aircraft with passengers is extremely likely, if evacuation window is extended unilaterally.
- Kabul airport is likely to witness violence after 31st August to gain control.
- Even humanitarian aid by air, if any, might have to be suspended.
- US strike on TTP outfit located within Pak territory is not ruled out.
About the Author
Gp Capt. Tej Prakash Srivastava has served in Iraq and is a graduate of both DSSC and AWC. He was Directing Staff at DSSC and Chief Instructor at College of Air Warfare. He Served at Air HQ, commanded a MiG-21 Sqn and headed the IAF establishment of Strike Corps during 'Operation Parakram'. He has authored a book titled 'Profligate Governance – Implications for National Security'. He has written extensively on international and strategic affairs and Defence Procurement Procedures. The IAF officer graduated from the NDA in June 1970 and trained at AFA with 107th Pilots Course. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]