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Pakistan’s calculus on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

The most likely post-withdrawal scenario could be a massive power struggle between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban

Published: Updated:

The announced drawdown of U.S. and Nato forces in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 has raised questions about the future of the war-torn country. According to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as U.S. troops withdraw, leaving Afghanistan on the brink of civil war.

Pakistan faces major challenges in this regard. The statement by its national security advisor Sartaj Aziz that “Pakistan doesn’t have favorites in Afghanistan” reflects a strategic shift in his country’s traditional policy. However, it seems rather difficult after years of conflict to adopt a balanced policy in Afghanistan. Neither the Taliban nor Kabul would perceive Islamabad as a reliable partner.

Pakistan blames Afghanistan for fanning dissent in Balochistan province, while Kabul accuses Islamabad of supporting non-state actors that attack Afghan security forces. Unless there is constructive engagement via strong diplomatic channels, things are expected to worsen.

Pakistan has lost its influence over the Afghan Taliban in the last few years. Apart from certain sections of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence organization, which have assisted the Taliban since its creation, Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban are extremely wary of each other. Pakistan is deeply suspicious of the Taliban’s ethnic and religious fanaticism, while the latter regards the Pakistani state and military as corrupt, brutal and inherently unreliable.

Pakistani policy-makers foresee different forms of spillover in case of civil war in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.

Javeriah Mazhar

Independent analysts say the most likely post-withdrawal scenario will be a massive power struggle between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. The risk of spillover would not be in Pakistan’s interests, leading it to recognize that the Taliban must share power with non-Pashtun ethnicities - including Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks - for lasting peace in Afghanistan. However, Islamabad’s role cannot exceed that of a mediator between the Taliban and Kabul.

Pakistan had previously given unconditional support to the Afghan Taliban in its quest to seek strategic depth in the region. However, analysts say dominance by the Taliban, which is sympathetic to al-Qaeda, would pose a grave threat to Pakistan’s national security.

Al-Qaeda has been vocal against Islamabad and its security forces, justifying jihad against what it calls an infidel system of governance in Pakistan. Supporting outright Taliban rule would be tantamount to allowing al-Qaeda a foothold in the region again.

Regional factors

The division of the ethnic Pashtun heartland between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Islamabad’s competition with its nuclear neighbor India, have been the two factors predominantly shaping Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

Islamabad’s fixation on its rivalry with India has led the former not only to bolster its defense needs at the cost of social and economic development, but also to abandon regional economic integration. Pakistan faces massive fallout from decades of supporting Islamist militants in its quest to challenge India.

Afghanistan becomes a major security concern in this scenario, as Pakistan seeks to avoid simultaneous threats on its eastern (Indian) and western (Afghan) borders, as well as increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Iran, another regional stakeholder, shares common goals with Washington in terms of preventing Afghanistan from returning to full-scale civil war, and stopping the return of the Taliban as a dominant political force. However, Tehran seems to have its hands full in the Middle East. Its priority would be to influence Kabul in order to protect the Shiite Hazara minority. In case of civil war, Tehran may support the creation of a semi-autonomous region inside Afghanistan for the Hazaras.

Iran and Pakistan have growing rifts over the latter’s support for the Bahraini monarchy and Saudi policies in the Middle East, as well as its status as a U.S. ally. Tehran also accuses Pakistan of having close ties with the Afghan Taliban, and of not acting to prevent Balochi extremism from spilling over into Iran. These tensions could lead to a severing of Iranian-Pakistani ties, thus adding to regional instability.

Pakistani policy-makers foresee different forms of spillover in case of civil war in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. While adopting measures to avoid or at least reduce such spillover, Islamabad must seek a non-hostile actor - if not a powerful partner - in Afghan politics to buffer against Indian inroads in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions close to Pakistan.

“We have to recognize that Afghanistan won’t be a perfect place, and it’s not America's responsibility to make it one,” said U.S. President Barack Obama. Major players now have to weigh their options and deal with the fallout of a security vacuum left by Washington.