Twenty years after the unsuccessful American troops withdraw from a minefield called Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, Pakistan is extremely worried of the Frankenstein it had conceived: The Taliban, perhaps the only terrorist group created by Pakistan that has gone beyond its control.
After the 9/11 attacks, America had launched its War on Terror to hunt down al-Qaeda militants and their leader Osama bin-Laden and bombed their hideouts across Afghanistan.
Since 2002, the US has provided nearly USD 88 billion in security assistance, USD 36 billion in civilian assistance, including USD 787 million specifically intended to support Afghan women and girls, and nearly USD 3.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the US said.
At present, the Afghan government forces and the Taliban, seen as successors of al-Qaeda, are engaged in a war of attrition to control the terrorism-infested mountainous country, snatching one district here or there from one another on a weekly basis.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden told his visiting Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani in the White House that America will continue to “stick” with his country even after withdrawing the troops.
Islamabad is also apprehensive about a possible ‘secret’ deal between the US and the Taliban, as part of a ‘peace agreement’ between them. Washington could encourage the Islamists to attack Baluchistan to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), create a Greater Pakhtoonistan by splitting Pakistan’s northwestern areas and even launch attacks on China’s Xinjiang province.
That is why, for the first time, Islamabad dreads the prospects of the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan. For, these uncouth Islamic terrorists are ready to launch attacks even on Pakistan! No longer does Afghanistan provides a ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan against India. On the contrary, Kabul is like the proverbial monkey Islamabad finds it impossible to shoo away from its shoulder.
It was this reason that Prime Minister Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi has ruled out hosting American bases in Pakistan for military action inside war-torn Afghanistan, fearing it might lead to his own country being ‘targeted in revenge attacks by terrorists.
He said as much in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post newspaper ahead of US President Joe Biden’s meeting with top Afghan leaders at the White House last week. He even questioned the efficacy of such US bases in Pakistan.
Apparently, the article was ghost-written for Khan by the mandarins of the Pakistan Army and the Foreign Office—trying to balance between the two stools, America and Afghanistan.
‘We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price,” Khan said, amid reports that the US is focusing on Pakistan for a military base in the region to keep an eye on Afghanistan and adjoining areas.
Arguing for not allowing the US bases in Pakistan, which were earlier permitted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America in 2001, to coordinate operations in Afghanistan, Khan said, “If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again.’
The US had used the Shamsi air base in Balochistan province of Pakistan to carry out relentless drone strikes since 2008, focusing mainly on suspected Al Qaeda operatives in mountainous tribal areas. The US troops had also crossed this border to enter Afghanistan.
“If the United States, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?” Khan argued.
Not to rub America the wrong way, however, he claimed that Pakistan and the US have the same interests in Afghanistan: a political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists. ‘We want a negotiated peace, not civil war,’ he claimed.
Pakistan is willing to partner with the US for peace in Afghanistan but “we will avoid risking further conflict” after withdrawal of American troops.
Even as the US withdraws foreign troops from Afghanistan this year, it is looking for options to keep a close eye on the region, trying to enlist support from other countries about it.
President Biden’s talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah on Friday discussed US troop withdrawal amid a surge in fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban across the country, according to media reports.
Khan claimed that “We have no favourites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people. History proves that Afghanistan can never be controlled from outside,” he warned America in an oblique reference to its ‘failures’ without Pakistan’s help.
Recalling the heavy ‘price’ Pakistan paid for its role in Afghanistan, he said, “More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided USD 20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded USD 150 billion.”
He said tourism and investment dried up and after joining the US effort, “Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups”.
Questioning the use of US drone attacks, which “I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries”.
Khan said there are more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and their number may increase in case of further civil war in Afghanistan.
Most of the Taliban are from the Pashtun ethnic group and more than half the Pashtuns live on the Pakistan side of the border.
“This is why we have done a lot of real diplomatic heavy lifting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, first with the Americans, and then with the Afghan government.
“Further military action is futile. If we share this responsibility, Afghanistan, once synonymous with the ‘Great Game’ and regional rivalries, could instead emerge as a model of regional cooperation,” he said.