The Afghan discussion has come down to this: who will manage the security of Kabul International Airport once the US and Nato forces complete their withdrawal? This shows how precarious the security situation is in Afghanistan that the US is now more worried about airport security over bringing overall peace to the war-torn country. Why Kabul airport’s security matters is because otherwise the US cannot maintain diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. The US and other western diplomatic missions need a secure airport to exit in case of emergency. The US has the option to take charge of airport security itself but since President Joe Biden has already stated that he doesn’t want any troops left behind, Washington is looking for other options. For this purpose, the US is talking to Turkey. The issue came up when Biden met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit last week.
This one aspect alone highlights the impending challenge Afghanistan poses for the US and Pakistan. There are two scenarios.
First and the ideal one is that there is a peace deal. There is a power-sharing agreement allowing the formation of an inclusive interim government. There is a comprehensive ceasefire and all sides agree to halt violence. There is a broader consensus among Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and other regional and international players. The international community agrees to pump in dollars for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-ravaged country. The return of peace allows what Pakistan often calls a “dignified” return of Afghan refugees to their homeland and unlocks the economic, trade and energy potential not just between Pakistan and Afghanistan but for the wider region. The peace also means terrorist groups find little space to operate out of Afghanistan and hence dividends of peace are there for everyone to take.
But unfortunately, the situation on ground appears to the contrary.
The second and most probable scenario is that Afghanistan is heading towards another phase of civil war and unrest. Despite efforts there is no or little chance of any peace deal in the near future. The Afghan Taliban already control 45% of the territory and their field commanders are publicly stating that once US forces leave, the current dispensation in Kabul will not survive a week. But that may not be as simple a proposition. If the Afghan Taliban have over 100,000 well-armed and well-trained foot soldiers, the Afghan National Army is 300,000-strong having the latest military equipment supplied by the US and other countries.
Even if the Taliban try to take over Kabul, it will not be a cakewalk. In the process, there will be mayhem on the streets of Afghanistan. The warring factions will try to assert control as it happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As a result of this chaos, terrorist groups will have freedom to operate. Groups such as TTP will find space to regroup. The unrest will trigger a fresh wave of refugees from Afghanistan. Although we have fenced the border and introduced other border mechanisms, those measures may not be enough.
On the diplomatic front this scenario means Pakistan will be blamed for the mess. The cost of Afghan unrest will be huge. The economic recovery the government is hoping for in the next two years may be undermined. There are other unforeseeable challenges that may come Pakistan’s way. But despite this imminent threat, Pakistan’s elected members are busy hurling abuses against each other. No one is talking about the threat being posed by the Afghanistan situation seriously. It will not be an overstatement that unrest in Afghanistan will have far-reaching implications for Pakistan and perhaps we are not yet ready to face the challenge!
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2021.