I recognise that engagement with the Taliban may be a politically difficult choice for some countries, but are at a critical point
US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops and end the international military presence in Afghanistan marks the logical conclusion of a war that never had a military solution. However, questions about the future of Afghanistan remain.
Will the military exodus be matched by reinvigorated diplomatic and economic engagement? Or will the world repeat past mistakes by abandoning Afghanistan and the region, disregarding the humanitarian and security crises that will inevitably follow. Worryingly, the signals thus far have been mixed.
For years, Pakistan advocated for a negotiated political settlement as the only way to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly. We knew we were going against the grain of the predominant thinking in the west, where notions of victory on the battlefield were never truly discarded. But as the country with the deepest links to Afghanistan, we understood the local context, and the fallacy of attempting military victory in a country that has never tolerated foreign imposition for too long.
Our advice was ignored, and rather than acknowledging Pakistan’s sacrifices for the war in Afghanistan, we were accused of playing a “double game”. The reality is that since 2001, Pakistan has been the principal victim of the war in Afghanistan. We have suffered over 80,000 casualties and more than $150bn in economic losses, with more than 3.5m of our own people internally displaced at the height of the terrorist onslaught inside Pakistan. This backlash was a direct consequence of our partnership with the west in Afghanistan; anti-Pakistan terrorist outfits, often based in Afghanistan, justified their attacks on innocent Pakistanis by presenting Pakistan as an enabler of the US “occupation” of Afghanistan. No other country has had to bear such pain – that too for a war next door that was not of our making.
The final days of the Ashraf Ghani presidency validated our view by laying bare just how disconnected the Afghan government and international assessments were from reality on the ground. The chaos of the military exit from Afghanistan was avoidable. Unfortunately, Ghani, and regional spoilers like India, created false narratives aimed at masking the reality that international efforts in Afghanistan lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans. Kabul’s misgovernance and massive corruption left them devoid of all credibility and, unsurprisingly, led to the security forces refusing to fight against the Taliban – accepted by many in Afghanistan as a political reality. The all too convenient popular narrative used Pakistan as a scapegoat and this was the pretext President Ashraf Ghani used to stall peace talks in Doha. By the end, virtually every Afghan political leader of note had confided in us that the Ghani administration was not serious about finding a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The world left it too late to realise and correct this folly. The rest is history.
Today, Afghanistan and the world is at an inflection point. Pakistan’s view may once again be against the grain of political expediency. But it is as sincere as it was in the past. For the sake of the average Afghan, and in purely selfish national interest of western countries, it must be given a fairer treatment now.
As unexpected as the pace of the transition in Afghanistan has been, it has spared Afghans a protracted conflict and more meaningless bloodshed. An immediate refugee crisis has consequently been averted. The Taliban have also signaled their intention to engage with the world, even asking western countries not to close down their embassies. This opens up space for the international community to engage constructively with Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s expectations of the new government are identical to those in the west. We have repeatedly called for a government that caters to and protects the rights of all Afghans while ensuring that Afghanistan’s territory is not used for terrorism against any country. This is a goal the international community shares with us in full.
The prudent way to ensure this is for the international community to incentivise the Taliban through engagement and assistance in return for commitments on a moderated style of government. While it is ultimately up to the Taliban to decide how to govern, the world must not underestimate its leverage to shape their behavior given the new regime’s need of international support and legitimacy. The international community should coordinate its efforts, with major powers and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors developing a consensus on constructive engagement as the way forward.
I recognise that this may be a politically difficult choice for some countries. But the alternative of walking away from Afghanistan will be tantamount to giving up on the millions of Afghans that remain inside the country. With no money and limited internal capacity, Afghanistan risks collapse. This will inevitably lead to mass migration and a security vacuum that will allow Isis, al-Qaeda and other international terrorists to thrive once again. Neither of these remained remain confined to Afghanistan or the region last time around. It will be foolish to think that the entire world will not be affected again.
Abandonment of Afghanistan has consequences that the world, and most of all Pakistan, has lived through for the past four decades. Afghans have been ravaged by war and Pakistan still houses approximately 4m Afghan refugees.
It is the international community’s collective responsibility to avert a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and ensure that the threat of terrorism to all of us is ended once and for all. This requires constructive engagement with the new political reality in Afghanistan.
Dr Moeed Yusuf is national security adviser for Pakistan