US soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan's Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan. Photo: Reuters/ Goran Tomasevic
US soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan's Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan. Photo: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

The proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan is poised to be a repeat of what happened after then-president Barack Obama decided to pull US troops out of Iraq in 2012.

Recent announcements of US withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan signal an attempt to achieve an honorable exit from a failed strategy, while at the same time saving the enormous financial costs of war in both countries, estimated at around US$15.3 billion in Syria and $45 billion in Afghanistan this year alone.

Afghanistan is currently not only a safe haven for Taliban leadership but is also a sanctuary for a complex nest of extremist outfits in the war-torn country. It is evident that terror outfit al-Qaeda, in cooperation with the Taliban, has been operating in the region.

ISIS, too, has clearly established a manageable command and control structure with the collaboration of the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ahrar-ul-Hind, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) in Tajikistan and the Islamist movement in Uzbekistan.

US President Donald Trump’s technique of combating terrorism looks a lot like Obama’s. It’s heavy on the use of operations such as raids and air strikes, but relies chiefly on indigenous forces for the majority of ground operations. To be sure, it’s not a carbon copy.

Trump’s strategy is more open to authorizing extra missions and delegating more decision-making to subordinate military commanders than Obama’s. However, in comparison with the principal alternatives – a big conventional invasion, unrestricted air strikes, a hands-off technique, or anything else – it’s actually quite similar to Obama’s 2016 strategy.

Currently, the Pentagon has stepped up air strikes and special operations raids in Afghanistan to the highest levels, which Defense Department officials have described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters. This war strategy has been deployed in order to gain leverage in the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban.

Soon after the US’s withdrawal from Iraq, the world witnessed the worst type of violence in the shape of ISIS. Now we see a power struggle among extremist outfits in Afghanistan, meaning there is a huge possibility of chaos in the region.

Some experts even speculate that a ferocious civil war could affect the Kabul government and weaken its army, which would give the opportunity to warlords to forge new power. That, in turn, could open the way to a new refugee crisis and cuts in international aid, which would cripple the standing of the Afghan military.

Ahead of what they foresee as a potential paradigm shift in regional stability, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia have welcomed the prospect of a US withdrawal from the region. These four states’ proactive role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table was due to the “common enemy” factor, as both the Taliban and these four powers opposed the increasing power of ISIS and its allied groups in Afghanistan.

Another reason behind Islamabad’s special attention to the Afghanistan situation is Indian influence and its potential for sabotaging the China-Pakistan Economic Community. The recent visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Pakistan with a $20 billion investment and aid package represented a massive potential boon to Islamabad.

Theodore Karasik, of the geo-strategic consultancy Gulf State Analytics in Washington, recently wrote: “Saudi moves and investment in Pakistan are a set and established policy that seeks to better integrate Islamabad into Riyadh’s camp” and “align the US and Saudi policy with Pakistan as part of the larger picture of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.”

As such, Pakistan’s geo-strategic location is winning both Washington’s and Beijing’s attention, thwarting those who hope for Islamabad’s global isolation. But Pakistan’s economic zones and potential as a hub for regional economic integration are at huge risk as long as they are surrounded by warlords who operate along the border with Afghanistan.

To mitigate that risk, the Pakistani military has completed fencing of around 900 kilometers of the border with Afghanistan, while a remaining 2,600km of the barrier is scheduled to be completed this year. The fence is equipped with security cameras and motion detectors.

Still, there is concern of more radicalization around the internal conflicts between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both extremist outfits are reportedly actively recruiting in the country. Tom Craig of The Washington Post has reported that al-Qaeda, with the collaboration of its South Asian offshoot al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), is ramping up operations in order to slow advances by rival ISIS militants in the region.

The current withdrawal and postwar policy of the US and its allies don’t yet suggest acceptable terms for the Afghans. As argued by Anthony H Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, it is clear that any form of real and lasting peace requires victory at both the civil and military levels, and that such a victory must have three critical components: “political unity, effective governance, and economic progress.” Unfortunately, it’s not clear that any of the three elements is currently in place.

Trump reportedly said in a recent Cabinet meeting in referring to ISIS and Taliban ambushes that since both are America’s enemies, “let them fight,” suggesting to his generals that there was no reason for the US to get in the middle of such a fight.

But if that is indeed America’s current position in Afghanistan’s prolonged quagmire, it’s a strategy that will open the door to unrelenting instability across South Asia.

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