Islamabad uncomfortable with US Afghan exit | Pakistan Today

Islamabad uncomfortable with US Afghan exit

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s criticism of US President Obama’s Afghan exit plan in New York recently has reignited the international press’s dilemma regarding Pakistan’s role – whether Islamabad will facilitate or frustrate the American drawdown. The US government and media have long accused Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of keeping covert ties with selected Taliban outfits, with the likely intention of hedging its interests for an unpredictable post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. Islamabad’s refusal to move against the Haqqanis, and fostering the so-called good Taliban, has led to repeated breakdown in communication with Washington regarding significant regional developments ahead. But Hina Rabbani Khar’s warning that the US was leaving “without determining whether you have accomplished your objectives” draws from Pakistan’s experience of partnering with America in the Soviet war, and carries serious security implications for the region. Back then, once the military objective was met, the US left without necessary rebuilding and reconstruction, plunging Afghanistan into a long civil war and leaving Pakistan to deal with the spillover.
Clean break? “It was the political and security vacuum that enabled the creation of the Taliban in the first place”, security officials told Pakistan Today. “And the US is leaving behind a similar vacuum again.” This time, even military victory has not been achieved. The Taliban have been gaining ground and authority since the famous spring offensive of 2006. Any post-Karzai government will be strongly influenced, if not represented, by them. And failing rehabilitation and promised reconstruction aid, the country is likely to experience an even more protracted civil conflict, they added. Pakistan is also concerned about security around its borders. NATO/ISAF forces abandoned Kunar and Nooristan on the Afghan side long ago. With refugee and militant movement again on the rise, Pakistani security forces do not trust their Afghan counterparts to control the borders, especially when their western trainers failed at securing them. Current US counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy revolves mainly around leveraging captured Taliban commanders, apparently to initiate discussions with Mullah Omer’s inner group. And even though western media spins it to reflect a US position favouring negotiations to end the 11-year war, Pakistani observers more familiar with Afghanistan see it as a realisation that the country will go back to warlords after America’s departure. “Propping up former senior commanders, even getting them freed from Pakistani prisons, is to secure geographical regions where they have influence, not so much to open a window for negotiations”, security officials said. The Taliban have already rejected talks as well as disarmament, and vowed to fight at least till a complete US/NATO/ISAF withdrawal. And with the Americans still counting on the possibility of negotiations, and promises of billions in aid in addition to the war effort far from being met, the resulting political void makes the possibility of a clean break unlikely. The exit plan has caused inevitable complications within Pakistan’s own COIN framework. The TTP is wounded and confused. Beaten in the mountains, it has occupied strategic positions near main cities, and taken to hit-and-run attacks in large population centres, which increases impact value.
But it is also making calculated hints of de-escalation that indicate, among other things, that it expects the Taliban to gain political influence across the border. Should the Americans leave without providing Afghanistan a viable reconstruction outline, its internal breakdown is sure to affect Pakistan’s fragile COIN situation. Add to that the sudden provocation at the LoC in Kashmir, and another political confrontation with India, and Hina Rabbani’s concern with the border situation becomes understandable. The last few years have diverted significant forces from the eastern border, which has eased Indian infiltration, hence the corresponding rise in insurgent activity, especially in Balochistan.
“The way in which America is withdrawing will hurt both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Rasheed Safi, head of news at Radio Burraq, which transmits exclusively in FATA and follows the insurgency very closely. “The US committed to stay till Afghan society was rebuilt and the people there given normal lives. The British promised to stay too. But now it seems they are just minimising losses and running, which will hurt the entire region.”
The rush to leave has led to repeated changes in America’s approach to the Taliban. From “no negotiations with terrorists” they have moved to cajoling some of Mullah Omer’s most trusted former warlords into the political process in return for peace. In that they are not much different from Pakistan’s approach of bolstering the good Taliban against the bad, a strategy they criticised for a decade before embracing it ahead of their departure. Hina Rabbani’s tone reflected a long-standing suspicion in Islamabad. Even before joining the international war against terrorism, Gen Musharraf warned Washington that Pakistan’s participation came in return for American promises of not repeating mistakes of the past, and staying until Afghan civil society was helped back to normalcy. Yet after more than a decade of war, at least half of which has seen the Taliban record consistent advances, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan far worse than they found it, with another civil war very likely, and Pakistan again forced to handle militants and refugees.

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