By: Mariam Qureshi
United States’ longest war in Afghanistan has finally come to a haphazard end. The Taliban remain undefeated and now control Afghanistan. How does the United States intend to utilise its alliance with Pakistan to preserve peace and security in the country without having boots on the ground?
United States’ (US) longest war came at an astronomical cost with 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops and 2,500 US troops killed, and over $2 trillion spent since the war began in 2001. In addition, 2.7 million Afghans were forced to migrate and another 4 million were internally displaced. Despite this, the US-backed Afghan military rapidly collapsed, and the Taliban spared no time in taking over and establishing an interim government. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has increased the fear of terrorism and the return of Al-Qaeda to the region. The shrinking economy and curtailed women and human rights have further worsened the socio-economic situation in Afghanistan.
The Biden Administration was heavily criticised for the haphazard US evacuation before the September 1st deadline, leaving behind its’ allies and US citizens in Afghanistan. Antony Blinken, President Biden’s Secretary of State, rushed to defend the chaotic US pull-out from Afghanistan in the first official testimony to the members of Congress since the exit. In his opening remarks, he stated there was no chance of extending the US stay in Afghanistan because if 20 years and billions of dollars did not suffice, another year or five would not have made much of a difference. At this point, many have turned to Pakistan, expecting it to play a vital role in preserving peace and stability in the region.
However, the Pakistan-US relationship is at a low. Blinken asserted the need for Washington to reassess its relationship with Pakistan. Whilst acknowledging Pakistan’s contribution to the US endeavour in Afghanistan, Blinken also stated that at times Pakistan acted against US interests. “This is one of the things we're going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead — the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years. But also, the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that,” he said. Blinken also stated that Pakistan must ‘line up’ with the broader international community in denying the legitimacy of the Afghan Taliban, unless they ensure free travel, the protection of women and children’s rights, and guarantee no safe haven for terrorism again.
Pakistan assisted the US in its War on Terror in 2001, under the leadership of President General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan signed the framework of cooperation in terms of Air Lines of Communication (ALOC) and Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), which granted the US Military access to Pakistani ground and airspace. This allowed for operations to be conducted swiftly in Afghanistan and the agreement remains in place to date. General Musharraf, the then Pakistani President, also allowed US troops access to airbases and granted permission for military aircraft to deploy from Pakistani soil. Then, in 2019, Pakistan took the initiative to facilitate the Afghan-US peace dialogue to reinstall peace in the region. The increased engagement with the US during the early years of the 2001 War in Afghanistan created a domestic security challenge for Pakistan. The increased terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil compromised Pakistan’s international image and the burden of incoming Afghan refugees fleeing their war-torn country crippled Pakistan’s already weak economy and limited resources. The mismanaged Pak-Afghan border, Durand Line, became the gateway for drug smuggling, human trafficking, refugee migration, and cross-border terrorism after 9/11. Although Pakistan is the largest trading partner of landlocked Afghanistan, its economic ties have dwindled over the years due to political and security tensions in the region. Pakistan also suffered a loss of 70,000 lives with a further $150 billion loss to its economyas a result of this war. Therefore, a stable Afghanistan is also in Pakistan’s best interest.
However, the tension between the US and Pakistan is evident and is hampering the creation of a viable strategy for Afghanistan moving forward. Despite being a critical ally to the US in its war in Afghanistan, President Biden has not reached out to Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan since assuming office in January 2021. Regardless of the repeated assurances from Washington in keeping close contact with Pakistan and working together in devising a strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf conveyed Pakistan’s displeasure at the delay in the phone call from the White House.
In an interview in June, Journalist Jonathan Swan asked PM Imran Khan if he would allow CIA presence in Pakistan to conduct cross-border counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Taliban. PM Khan replied with a stern ‘absolutely not’. Later, Pakistan Foreign Office officially denied any reports claiming the presence of US bases in Pakistan. In a recent speech at the National Assembly of Pakistan, PM Khan clarified that Pakistan could be ‘partners with the United States in peace but never in conflict’. PM Khan lamented that past decisions to join the US in its war against terrorism which jeopardized the security of Pakistan and came at a heavy price for Pakistani civilians and soldiers. This suggests a policy divergence from the longstanding Pak-US cooperation.
PM Khan has reiterated his position in several interviews that he believes in a political solution to the Afghanistan problem. In a recent interview with CNN, he emphasized the need for an inclusive government and the assurance of women and human rights in Afghanistan. PM Khan clarified that he wants the international community to find a diplomatic solution to pressure the Taliban government into protecting women and human rights, exercising inclusive governance, and ensuring there's no safe haven for terrorism on Afghan soil, in exchange for international recognition and desperately needed aid. He elaborated that the conclusion of the two-decade-long war has proven that Afghanistan and its’ people cannot be controlled by outside forces and that a puppet government cannot survive in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, under PM Imran Khan, desires a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and is not interested in negotiating with the US on future military endeavours. Moving forward, this will have implications on the Pak-US relationship, which will, by extension, also reconfigure the security situation in the region. If the Pak-US alliance is in jeopardy and the US looks towards India for a potential alliance, Pakistan might increasingly look to China for support. All key states have a stake in Afghanistan, which seems dangerously close to collapse. Only time will reveal how the alliances are reconfigured in a post-war scenario in the region.