Those who have pinned hopes for peace and stability in South Asian region on withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014 are in for a rude shock and disappointment. The region has all the potential plunge into more instability after competing interests of Pakistan, Iran, India and China come into play and each stakeholder tries, through its proxies, to have its pound of flesh. If history is any guide, Afghanistan is destined to live in war and bloodshed or, to the horror of the world, be captured and ruled by the Taliban. The Taliban proudly claim to have resisted, fought and forced the draw-down and, thus, are the bona fide contender for the throne of Kabul. If we build a future scenario on the basis of aftermath of withdrawal of Soviet forces in February, 1989, the picture that would emerge is not in the interest of any of the power brokers. The worst victims of the death and mayhem will be Afghanistan itself followed by Pakistan. Pakistan is primary target of terrorists of all hues but after the draw-down, the world at large will experience a tidal flow of terrorist activities.
The US has considered in detail the possibility of handing over Afghanistan to Afghan National Security Forces. This would also be a recipe for disaster because credible sources have indicated near complete infiltration of the Taliban in Afghan National Army. Recent incidents of Green-on-Blue attacks have confirmed the worst fears of security analysts. Common Afghans are no less hostile to the coalition forces which has amply been demonstrated by successful attacks of the Taliban in the heart of most-guarded district of the Afghan capital. These attacks could not be successful without the aid of, and connivance with, the local Afghans.
The coalition (read: the US) would, thus, be back to square one after withdrawal of its troops and would have wasted trillions of taxpayers’ dollars and precious human lives in Afghan misadventure. This does not include “collateral damage” in thousands killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and destruction of physical infrastructure.
According to an analysis of a senior Pakistani diplomat, American policymakers need to face up to three harsh realities in Afghanistan. One, the US-NATO presence in Afghanistan is now opposed by the majority of Afghans. The circle of alienation has widened progressively. At first, the ousted Taliban were the aggrieved party; US-NATO tactical errors and expanded military presence in south and east Afghanistan extended the alienation to most Pakhtuns. The corruption of Karzai and his coterie deepened popular hostility. Two, for different reasons, both of Afghanistan’s critical neighbors —Pakistan and Iran — are now anxious to ensure the withdrawal of US-NATO troops and have no incentive at present to support Washington’s policy objectives to transition power to a ‘moderate’ Afghan government.
Americans have such a remarkable knack for turning friends into foes for no plausible reason. Iran cooperated initially in ousting the Taliban and installing the Tajik-dominated regime in Kabul. But its inclusion in George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ and the subsequent escalation of US sanctions and military threats against Iran’s nuclear program have placed Tehran firmly among America’s detractors in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the US relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated to unprecedented depths. The aerial shooting spree which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border added ultimate injury to the insult of the major strategic reversals that Pakistan’s involvement in America’s ‘war on terror’ has entailed — a hostile Tajik-dominated regime in Kabul, a fight with Pakistan’s own Pakhtuns and militants, an open back door for India to do mischief in western Pakistan, the collapse of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, and the one-sided US ‘strategic partnership’ with India. To top it all, the US has accepted the Karzai-Tajik narrative that it is the ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan, rather than internal Afghan disaffection that is driving the insurgency against the foreign forces in Afghanistan. It is a most convenient excuse for failure, for US generals and politicians.
The third reality is the growing opposition to the Afghan war in America. If the US army had been a conscript force today, as in Vietnam, and those who were fighting and dying were not only the children of the poor but also the rich, the Afghan adventure would have been long over. In the US Congress, calls for withdrawal now emanate from both left and right. Some hard-liners say that the aim of defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been achieved. Most are weary of expending more money and blood for objectives whose strategic value to the US is, at best, marginal.
With these realities, it is not difficult to anticipate that the Taliban can exploit the popular disaffection to bring about an internal collapse of the Kabul regime. Anticipating the growing compulsion for US withdrawal, and their inevitable victory, the Taliban will negotiate with the US on their own terms. With nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, the possibilities of Israel’s misadventure in Iran with US help have diminished but with sanctions still in place, the US is virtually all alone to deal with the mess it has created for itself in Afghanistan. Although its relations with Pakistan are improving after Salala incident, the trust deficit still continues to haunt the relationship. With growing anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, it would be impossible for any administration in Pakistan to go out of the way and bail out Americans from the Afghanistan conundrum.
The US has failed not only in achieving its objectives of Afghanistan misadventure; its complete withdrawal will unleash a series of terrorist attack outside the South Asian region where al Qaeda has extended its franchise. According to an analysis by The National Interest, developments elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa will compound the emergence of this new threat in South Asia. Although al Qaeda al Jihad is based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it influences threat groups in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Groups from outside the region, notably the Middle East, are likely to return to Afghanistan and play primary and peripheral training and operational roles.
According to this analysis, recent developments would catalyze the spread of terror activities Middle East and Africa and draw people in hordes to al Qaeda message. The Israeli attack in Gaza in November 2012 increased global Muslim resentment and anger against the West. Africa is developing as a new epicenter of terrorism. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) expanded from North Africa to the Sahel. AQIM shared its expertise with Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria. In November 2012, Abu Bakr Shekau, its leader, expressed BH's solidarity with associates of al Qaeda al Jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and Yemen. After Qaddafi's fall, North Mali has emerged as a training ground and a battlefield.
Therefore, the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan will usher the world at large and particularly the Muslim countries in Asia, Middle East and Africa to a new era of infighting, civil wars and terrorism. Functionally and regionally, developments in Afghanistan will be the most influential. The Salafi-Jihadists and a segment of Islamists consider Afghanistan “the mother of all battles.” If the jihadists reconstitute Afghanistan for a second time, it will affect not only Western security but also will impact Asia’s rise. Driven by success, returning fighters will reignite conflicts in Kashmir, Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Mindanao, Arakan, Pattani, tribal Pakistan and other Muslim lands. With half of India already in the clutches of insurgency, the emerging scenario will only help strengthen instability of the South Asian region.