As America’s retreat from Afghanistan turns into a rout, panic has gripped the US-installed regime in Kabul. At the same time, a trap is being set up to further destabilize Pakistan.
The US wants all troops out of Afghanistan by mid-July. It is not waiting for the September 11 deadline that President Joe Biden had unilaterally announced, much to the annoyance of the Taliban. The withdrawal should have been completed by May 1, 2021 as per the Doha agreement of February 29, 2020.
While withdrawing combat troops, the US does not appear to want to leave Afghanistan completely. It said 650 US troops will remain to “safeguard embassies and other diplomatic staff” in Kabul. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group had the “right to react” if the US keeps troops in Afghanistan after September 11, when the withdrawal is due to complete.
The US seeks military bases in neighbouring countries especially Pakistan to conduct air strikes and other operations against the Taliban. Mercifully, Pakistan has turned down the request. In an interview with Axios that was aired on June 20, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated categorically “Absolutely not” when asked by Jonathan Swan of the US web portal whether Pakistan would provide military bases to the US.
“There is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan,” Imran Khan told Swan. “Absolutely not.”
“We will be partners in peace, not in conflict,” he emphasized. He then reminded Swan that since 911, Pakistan had suffered more than 70,000 casualties (deaths) in the US’ so-called war on terror. This exceeds the total casualties of all other countries combined. Pakistan also suffered material losses worth some $150 billion.
Imran Khan then posed the question: the US could not win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would it do it from bases in Pakistan? These are the kinds of questions the US does not want to hear. There is a body of opinion in Pakistan that believes Imran Khan’s life may be in danger. Unfortunately, the US has many paid agents in the country that are willing to commit any crime, however dastardly, for a fistful of dollars or a visa to the US.
Pakistan is already being subjected to increased pressure. A number of terrorist attacks inside the country point to this. There was a bomb explosion in Johar Town, Lahore on June 23 killing three persons. A number of arrests have been made. Terrorists have continued to attack Pakistani troops in Baluchistan province. And on June 25, Pakistan was kept on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list despite meeting 26 out of its 27 demands. Much progress has been made on the 27th point as well. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was forced to ask: “… whether FATF is a political forum or a technical one and whether it is being used to achieve political objectives.” FATF announced another six demands of Pakistan to meet. It is being used to pressure Pakistan even while Pakistan’s mega-thieves—the Sharifs, Zardaris and others—are harboured in Western countries with their stolen loot.
In his Axios interview, Imran Khan also expressed concern that US withdrawal without a political settlement in Afghanistan could possibly lead to a “civil war”. Naturally, Pakistan would be greatly affected if turmoil engulfs its western neighbour. There are still three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan; more would flood in if a civil war erupts.
Such concerns are not unfounded. The Taliban have been active in a number of provinces and have already captured more than 80 districts across the country. In many instances, Afghan National Army (ANA) units simply surrender and hand over their weapons to the Taliban. Many civilian administrators likewise prefer to surrender rather than resist and risk getting killed.
Shir Khan Bandar on the Afghan-Tajik border in Kunduz province was the latest post to fall to the Taliban on June 21 night. Afghan troops fled the scene, some crossing into Tajikistan across the Pyanj River. Faryab province as well as the city of Balkh near Mazar-i Sharif have also fallen to the Taliban.
The US-installed and backed regime exists only in name. Its writ does not extend beyond Kabul and that too is limited to a certain section of the capital. Following defeat of government troops in multiple theatres, the nominal Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed new defence and interior ministers.
General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a protégé of Ahmed Shah Masoud, was appointed defence minister. He had served as defence minister soon after the Taliban were ousted in November 2001. Mohammadi had also served as interior minister and the chief of army staff.
General Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal was appointed interior minister. Whether the new appointees will make any difference is yet to be seen. If the troops under their command are so demoralized that they would rather surrender than fight, what difference would the appointment of new men make?
Meanwhile, Biden summoned Ghani and his political rival and chairman of the High National Council for Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah to Washington on June 25. They were told, yet again, that they are on their own despite claims by the White House that the US would remain “deeply engaged” with the government of Afghanistan. The White House said it would like to ensure the country never again becomes a “safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the US homeland.”
Afghanistan was never a safe haven for terrorists. It is now, with Daesh terrorists smuggled into the country from Syria by the US military. Similarly, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, a terrorist outfit, continues to enjoy US-Afghan protection.
The groups that were operating in Afghanistan 20 years ago demanded the withdrawal of US forces from their lands. They had no interest in attacking the US homeland, contrary to Washington’s allegations. The US-run torture camp at Guantanamo Bay has only 40 inmates left today from a total of 700 in 2002. Not one detainee has been convicted in a properly constituted court of law, notwithstanding the kangaroo military tribunal set up by the US. This alone belies Washington’s claims of Afghanistan being a safe haven for terrorists. Ghani and Abdullah should take heed. If they wish to avoid the fate of the luckless Dr Najibullah who was dragged through the streets of Kabul before being hanged from a lamp post in Kabul when the Taliban took control in August 1996, they should look for alternative accommodation and not return to Kabul.
Even former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has started to question US motives. He was installed in power by American warlords in early 2002. Karzai said in an interview with the Associated Press (AP), “We recognize as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here” to fight extremism and bring stability? “Where are they leaving us now?” he asked rhetorically. Answering his own question, Karzai said: “In total disgrace and disaster.”
He went on: “We will be better off without their military presence,” and emphasized: “I think we should defend our own country and look after our own lives... Their [US] presence (has given us) what we have now... We don’t want to continue with this misery and indignity that we are facing. It is better for Afghanistan that they leave.”
If even Karzai has realized that US involvement has been a disaster, then it is a good sign although such realization has come rather late. And now Turkey is considering acting as America’s sentinel in Afghanistan. One wonders why Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan continues to act so erratically? The Taliban have warned him against such foolishness.