On 31 August 2021, the US ended the longest war in its history when all American and Nato forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Taliban victory. But in the absence of an agreement for a peaceful transition and the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, the final phase of the withdrawal was marked by a chaotic rush for the exits. Even in this turbulent environment, Pakistan extended its full support to the US and its allies as well as the Afghans and international organisations. Such assistance has been consistent with the Prime Minister’s pledge that Pakistan will no longer be a partner in war but for peace.
Since the stunning Taliban victory upended America’s withdrawal plan, chaos broke out at Kabul international airport as thousands of foreigners and Afghans sought to flee the capital, fearing violence and retribution by the Taliban. Special flights by US military aircraft were flown to extricate Americans and allied personnel as well as Afghans working with Nato countries that were considered to be at risk. Desperate Afghans clung on planes taking off and fell to their death. Others were trampled by unruly crowds and firing by American troops caused at least five casualties. The situation was made worse by an ISIS-K terrorist attack killing at least 170 people.
Given the high number of evacuees, additional flights were required — an operation in which Pakistan’s national airline flew more than 300 flights to evacuate over 10,000 people with at least 600 people being evacuated daily. In addition, Pakistan facilitated evacuation by land through the Torkham and Chaman borders, especially for the Afghans. Special emergency transit visas were issued by the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul working round the clock or on arrival in Pakistan. As a result, thousands of Americans, Afghans and other nationals transited through Pakistan where special arrangements were made to accommodate them.
Besides, owing to the growing humanitarian crisis created by the existing instability, Pakistan is partnering with international aid agencies such as FAO and WHO to transport essential items to Afghanistan by air and land. Several convoys have reached Afghan cities and more are on the way.
Pakistan has also set up temporary refugee camps close to the Afghan border. These refugees and Afghans in transit would be in addition to the 3.5 million Afghan refugees already in Pakistan for more than four decades. There remains uncertainty about Afghans whose resettlement process in the West would take several weeks if not months. There is also the question as to what will happen to those whose applications are rejected. They could end up being stranded in Pakistan.
While the Taliban have declared that the Afghan war is over, lasting peace and security in Afghanistan cannot be guaranteed as yet. Remnants of the Afghan army and the erstwhile Northern Alliance are still entrenched in the Panjshir valley. Terrorist groups like ISIS-K, al-Qaeda, TTP, BRA, ETIM and others are also still operational as underscored by the ISIS-K attack on Kabul airport and frequent TTP terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Malign forces such as India are also supporting the Panjshiris from their air base in Tajikistan.
Moreover, Afghanistan is facing an economic meltdown with shortage of cash and devaluation of its currency. This has been made worse by the freezing of Afghan reserves worth 9 billion dollars by the US and the suspension of economic assistance by Western countries and the international financial institutions. The increasing shortages of food and other essential items have been compounded by the growing humanitarian crisis created by internally displaced people. The Taliban so far lack the capability to deal with these challenges.
Pakistan has asked the international community to help Afghanistan at this crucial juncture. It has also warned that failure to do so risks promoting narco-terrorism which would be counter-productive for all countries and not just Afghanistan. Pakistan has also used whatever leverage it has with the Afghans to evolve an inclusive and broad-based government to ensure domestic stability and international legitimacy. The Taliban also need to demonstrate their respect for human rights and take action against terrorist groups. Such measures would facilitate international assistance.
The Taliban have declared a general amnesty and reached out to the minorities, undertaken to respect rights of women and assured action against terrorist groups. The Taliban have also engaged with other Afghan leaders for a future political setup and at the time of this writing, they are expected to announce their political dispensation within a few days.
Consistent with its commitment to partner with the international community for Afghan peace, Pakistan has extended maximum cooperation to the UN and its Special Agencies as well as NGOs. Despite petty Indian machinations to use its rotating Presidency of the UN Security Council to prevent Pakistan from participating in the Council’s debates on Afghanistan, Pakistan has fully engaged with UN members to promote a proactive role for Afghan peace, security and development.
Together with China and Russia, Pakistan ensured that the abrasive initial draft resolution, sponsored by the Western powers in the Security Council and adopted on 30 August, was significantly watered down. Consequently, there was no condemnation of the Taliban in the resolution but a strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan. It also called for combating terrorism, condemned the terrorist attack on Kabul airport, called for respecting human rights including women’s rights, and underscored the need for strengthened efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Significantly however, the Western sponsors of the Council resolution did not accept Chinese and Russian proposals to condemn ISIS and ETIM terrorists, agree to unfreeze Afghan resources, halt the brain-drain from Afghanistan, and allow a more thorough discussion in the Council. Such Western opposition to these reasonable proposals indicates that the US is still petulantly trying to undermine the Taliban. This does not bode well for their own long-term interests.
Even so, the supportive approach by Pakistan along with China and Russia holds out hope for Afghanistan.