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Challenges for Pakistan After US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Last month, President Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan unconditionally changed the geopolitical climate in the region. Russia and China are worried about the possible influx of terrorists on their borders. Iran and Saudi Arabia are moving towards normalizing relations. India is outraged by a move that shows a decline in its impact in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is a country that has to make tough choices in the coming days.
Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table has received a lot of attention these days. Recent activities in Islamabad indicate that Pakistan does not care much about the Taliban’s absolute power in Afghanistan. Since last year, Pakistan has been trying to diversify its options by resuming relations with several political actors in Kabul. Initially it hosted Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of High Council of National Reconciliation (HCNR) of Afghanistan. A meeting was later arranged by a Pakistani delegation led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Recently, Pakistan hosted a Troika meeting that condemned violence in Afghanistan and called on Afghan parties to reach a political agreement.
Pakistan’s preference for a political deal that sees the Taliban as having a share of power rather than the Taliban’s complete control of Kabul is based on two reasons.
First, Islamabad’s influence over the Taliban has diminished over the past decade. Previous relations on both sides were to spread the spirit of Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Former Taliban leaders have now been replaced by a new generation, such as Mullah Yaqub and Mullah Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, both of whom, although they have spent most of their lives in Pakistan, have not developed close ties. Their current relationship with Pakistan is a simple one, and one that is likely to weaken when the Taliban break free.
Islamabad wants a government in Kabul that sees a positive solution to the dispute, but the Taliban regime does not offer such guarantees – especially given the fact that the Taliban have held power in the past.
In addition, even if Islamabad strikes a perfect balance between the two options, there are other factors that do not work for Pakistan. Over the past four decades, more than 4 million Afghan refugees have crossed the border into Pakistan. Ensuring the return of these refugees will not only be a challenge for Islamabad, but may also pay off as a result of demographic change resulting from their return.
But a worse situation seems to await Pakistan. The current state of affairs in Afghanistan makes the possibility of stability unlikely in the near future. At best, it is possible to reach a political agreement in which the Taliban have considerable power. Given the history of the previous Taliban regime, some predict that even if the best-case scenario materializes, more refugees will leave Afghanistan. Pakistan, a close neighbor, has to bear the brunt of the influx of refugees into the region. Such a situation would have a severe impact on the Pakistani economy, which is currently struggling with the consequence of spread of COVID-19.
In the past, 75% of Kabul’s expenses were supported by foreign aid. The withdrawal of US troops shows a decline in US interest in the region and the uncertainty of the future of foreign aid to Afghanistan. Over the years, the Afghan government has failed to provide significant sources of revenue that will maintain administrative function in the event of a cut in foreign aid. The Taliban, on the other hand, have relied heavily on the drug trade to finance their operations. A regime in Kabul under the influence of the Taliban may compensate for the suspended aid by referring to its current source of income. As most opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan occurs in the region bordering Pakistan, there has been a significant increase in drug trafficking across the border – a challenge that Pakistan previously faced in the 1980s. Such an outcome will have devastating effects on Pakistani society, and it will take years of effort and resources to deal with it.
The current situation in Afghanistan has given Pakistan very difficult options. On the one hand, the Taliban’s rise to power provides Pakistani influence in Kabul. On the other hand, a strengthened Taliban is likely to act independently and against Pakistan’s interests. President Biden’s declaration seems to have put an end to the endless war in the United States. But for Pakistan, the real struggle may have just begun.
(Sahar News)

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