Afghanistan: a new great game? -Express Tribune

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People are still searching for answers as to how Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in a matter of 11 days. The lightning speed with which the Taliban took control of Kabul will haunt the US for many years to come. The political and military leaderships in the US are struggling to defend the withdrawal decision while insisting that they had never anticipated such a quick takeover of Kabul by the Taliban.

While the US leadership has come under close scrutiny, Pakistan’s assessment on Afghanistan also went wrong. In the background briefings, Pakistani officials were presenting different scenarios in the event of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the absence of any political settlement, civil war was inevitable, according to the Pakistani assessment. We were told that the takeover of Kabul would be bloody. But contrary to those analyses, Taliban returned to Kabul without much resistance, something that has avoided major violence. The major worry for Pakistan was the influx of new Afghan refugees. It was estimated that between 0.5 and 0.7 million new Afghans might enter Pakistan. But since the Taliban took control, the situation at border crossings has remained calm as there have been no reports of any influx of new refugees. Pakistan, prior to the withdrawal of US forces, was concerned that Washington would want permanent bases in Afghanistan to advance its strategic interests. That assumption did not come true either.

Although Pakistan’s assessment went wrong, it is not bad for the country. No civil war and no influx of refugees thus far would serve Pakistan’s interest. The question, however, is: if you are horribly wrong in predicting the Afghan situation despite being involved in the country for 40 years, how could you foresee the future situations?

At this stage, at least Pakistan is happy that the situation is under control in Afghanistan. But that may only be a temporary relief. The US is being rightly criticised for its chaotic exit but few are talking about the close coordination with which the Taliban and the US have been working since the fall of Kabul. The two sides had signed a withdrawal deal on February 29. But that deal had secret annexures. It was Pakistan which first brokered direct talks between the Taliban and the US but at some point both the parties had established direct contact with each other often bypassing Pakistan. The US, through these contacts, may have cultivated the Taliban to protect its strategic interests in the region.

The US may be leaving Afghanistan in a humiliating manner but it does retain the financial leverage. It controls the international financial system and without its help the new government led by the Taliban cannot sustain. It is possible that the US will use economic leverage to advance its interests in the region. And the US interest in the region can be at odds with Pakistan and other regional players. The US can use Afghan soil to support groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Movement to create trouble for China. It is also worrying for Pakistan that the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may be emboldened by the return of Taliban rule in Kabul.

Therefore, the situation in Afghanistan is not as simple as many in Pakistan may have been thinking. The new situation in Afghanistan has certainly offered a great opportunity for Pakistan and other regional countries but a lot will depend on how the key players play their cards. If they use Afghan soil for proxy games then certainly we will be in for another period of uncertainty. Pakistan needs to watch out for that and may be required to have a more accurate analysis of the situation first.