Comment | Who won the Afghan war?

With the U.S.’s phased withdrawal, the Taliban has got what it wanted. How does this benefit Pakistan and what do they want?

Updated - March 03, 2020 04:34 pm IST

Published - March 03, 2020 02:04 pm IST

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020.

Who won the Afghan war?

With the U.S. planning for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of its agreement with the Taliban, the insurgent group is clearly in an advantageous position. Throughout the 18-year-long war, its key demand has been the expulsion (or withdrawal) of foreign troops from the country.

The Taliban has got what it wanted and did not shy away from declaring victory. Sher Mohammad Abas Stanikzai, the Taliban's deputy negotiator, called the day of signing a "day of victory". The group’s multimedia chief characteristically called it "the defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban", according to the New York Times .

But the Taliban is not the only winner. There has always been a shadow player in the Afghan war - Pakistan. From its inception, the Taliban has had good ties with the Pakistani military establishment. Barring some tactical realignment in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Islamabad has never abandoned the Taliban. It continued to host the Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network, an internationally declared terrorist group that has close ties with the Pakistani military and is now an influential actor within the Taliban fold. So, the strengthening of the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan is good news for Pakistan.

Also read: U.S. peace deal leaves Afghans to determine post-war landscape | U.S.-Taliban agreement | India hails peace deal in “contiguous neighbour” | Taliban orders halt to attacks in Afghanistan ahead of U.S. agreement | No need to involve U.S. to resolve bilateral issues, Pakistan tells Afghanistan | ‘Spoilers’ may try to sabotage peace process in Afghanistan: Pakistan Foreign Minister

How has the U.S. lost the war?

The Taliban was Pakistan’s most important bet to increase its influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan had always been worried about getting sandwiched between India and a pro-India government in Kabul.

When the Taliban was in power during 1996-2001, Pakistan had its greatest influence on the country in Afghanistan’s history. The Taliban regime of Mullah Omar was increasingly dependent on Pakistan for its engagement with the outside world. But after the Taliban was ousted from power by the Americans in 2001, Pakistan’s influence started receding.

Simultaneously, India stepped up its engagement with the post-Taliban government, made investments in rebuilding the country, and cultivated strong ties with different political groups, which heightened Pakistan’s insecurity. Pakistan was also facing a strategic dilemma - it can’t antagonise the U.S. which was leading the war on terror, but it can’t shun the Taliban either, which would weaken its geopolitical standing in the region.

To overcome this dilemma, Pakistan adopted a double game: continue to fight alongside the U.S. in the war on terror while retaining its deep ties with the Afghan Taliban. Directorate S, a unit of the Inter-Service Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency, secretly continued its operations assisting the Taliban. American journalist Steve Coll has reconstructed this dual play of Pakistan in the Afghan war in his book , Directorate S , arguing that Pakistan’s main concern in the post-Taliban Afghanistan was India’s growing influence in the country. And when the U.S. went to other wars such as Iraq, Libya and Syria and lost its focus on Afghanistan, it became easier for Pakistan to continue its double game.

What does Pakistan want?

Pakistan wanted two things. One, it wanted to curtail India’s influence in Afghanistan. Two, it wanted a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S., which was pivoting towards India. The Taliban was its answer to both these problems. The calculation was that if the Taliban was not defeated in the war, the U.S. would be forced to engage with the group, and the road to engaging with the Taliban goes through Islamabad. And if the U.S. directly engages with the Taliban and pulls out of Afghanistan, it would strengthen the Taliban vis-a-vis the Afghan government. This is what appears to be happening now.  

By the time the U.S. realised that it was losing the Afghan war, Pakistan had already rebuilt its influence in Afghanistan through a resurgent Taliban. Desperate to get out of the conflict, the U.S. had to reach out to Pakistan to kick-start direct talks with the Taliban . The U.S. would continue to need Pakistan’s assistance to save the deal and retain some influence on the Taliban.

On the other hand, the mainstreaming of the Taliban in Afghanistan, would naturally enhance Pakistan’s standing in the country. If the Taliban captures power in the future or even if the Taliban is accommodated into the government as part of some peace agreement, Pakistan would use its leverage on the Taliban to undercut India’s influence in Kabul.

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