The Afghan withdrawal could unravel US-Pakistan relations

A U.S. Army soldier climbs a hill towards an American outpost October 15, 2006 near Camp Tillman, Afghanistan just two kilometers from the Pakistan border.
6 min read
Washington, DC
30 July, 2021
Analysis: As the US leaves Afghanistan, where will Pakistan pivot?

As the US completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is unclear what comes next in its relationship with neighbouring Pakistan

The US-Pakistan relationship can at times be characterised as friendly, but more often as adversarial. Pakistan has been both an asset and a hindrance to US security interests, as demonstrated by its help in intelligence gathering and in its harbouring of terrorists and support of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A new era of a post-US-occupied Afghanistan could bring the two countries together to cooperate on mutual interests, or it could drive them further apart, depending on the outcome of the withdrawal and regional relationships, such as Pakistan's continued rift with India and its budding partnership with China.

"With its withdrawal, the US and its allies have given up any say in Afghanistan's affairs, a hard-to-accept but inevitable outcome after nearly 20 years of occupation"

However, one thing is certain: whatever the outcome of the US withdrawal, Pakistan cannot be ignored.

The post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan

As the US hastily withdraws from Afghanistan after two decades with no clear endgame, many are comparing these final days to another unpopular and unsuccessful war in which the US left behind the chaos that it had largely created.

"There is an eerie similarity to the aftermath of Vietnam," Patrick James, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, tells The New Arab, pointing to the approximately 70,000 Afghans, many of them former translators for the US military, who are waiting to relocate to the US. 

"The countries around Vietnam were very unsettled. There are implications for Pakistan."

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For Pakistan, the end of this war in which it only begrudgingly helped the US, following the 9/11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, could mean the chance for it to develop its own independent foreign policy with Afghanistan, which will likely have a Taliban-run government. 

For the US, this could mean further cause for concern.

With its withdrawal, the US and its allies have given up any say in Afghanistan's affairs, a hard-to-accept but inevitable outcome after nearly 20 years of occupation.

Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan - sincere or pragmatic?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has not publicly condemned the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is considered a reliable supporter of the group, would likely prefer an Afghan government in which the Taliban played an important role.

"Pakistan has been clear that they would want the Taliban to have a major piece of the pie," Asfandyar Ali Mir, a South Asian security analyst at Stanford University, told TNA.

Pakistan's government, whose views on the Taliban differ from the country's military, has various reasons for its support - or at least its lack of condemnation - of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"America's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has exacerbated anti-American sentiment in Pakistan"

First, it has its own population to answer to, many of whom share beliefs and culture with the Taliban. James points out that Pakistan's leadership cannot be too pro-American and risk alienating Islamists. 

Furthermore, America's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has exacerbated anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

"After 9/11, and after some duress, Pakistan became partners with the US," Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told TNA

"Pakistan was very uncomfortable with the US invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. They thought they'd signed up for a narrow war, but they ended up in a war against friends, the Taliban."

Finally, there is a theory that Pakistan wants a chaotic Afghanistan to give it leverage and power in the region. This theory, however, ignores the fact that a chaotic Afghanistan would have underiable effects, such as increased instability and refugees, for Pakistan.

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. [Getty]
In April 2021, there were around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. [Getty]

US choosing sides in India-Pakistan dispute

Though India is not a new adversary for Pakistan, the tensions between the countries remain strong. As the US continues to strengthen its relationship with India, Pakistan's frustration builds, causing it to believe - possibly with good reason - that the US is siding with India, even with reports of Indian violations of human rights and sovereignty in the disputed province of Kashmir.

In terms of Afghanistan, there is a perception in Pakistan that the Afghan government is linked to India. The regional rivalry between India and Pakistan may push the latter to support the Taliban in order to reduce India's influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's burgeoning relationship with China

Right now, China is key to understanding the future of Pakistan's foreign policy and plans in the region. As Pakistan's main trading partner and a major investor in infrastructure, China's role in the country is being closely monitored by the US.

"Pakistan will be forced to choose between the US and China, and it will likely choose China, as it will not want to antagonise its largest trading partner"

There is always concern in the US, says James, "when countries with nuclear capabilities are lining up with China."

In international bodies, Pakistan will be forced to choose between the US and China, and it will likely choose China, as it will not want to antagonise its largest trading partner.

"China will be an irritant in US-Pakistan relations," says Hathaway.

Pakistan has remained conspicuously silent on this oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. At the same time, some of the Islamist groups currently antagonising China can be found in Pakistan, which could cause tension down the road in this close relationship.

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The future for US-Pakistani relations

No matter how things develop, America's relationship with Pakistan will likely remain difficult for the foreseeable future. This will continue to be a concern for the US, given the country's alliances and nuclear capabilities.

Despite its great power on the world stage, the US has shown the limits of its influence in effecting change or mobilising support in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Having great power does not necessarily allow you to control others, especially if others care more," says Hathaway. "The Taliban is an extraordinarily dedicated group of individuals. They are prepared to die for their beliefs."

"Having great power does not necessarily allow you to control others, especially if others care more"

Hathaway suggests setting low expectations for now.

"Both sides - the Americans and the Pakistanis - have come to the conclusion that their relationship has always backfired. Pakistanis believe the US has let them down again and again. There are grievances on both sides, many of them based on fact, which makes building a relationship nearly impossible," he says.

"It's better for both sides to back off, and keep expectations modest, and look for quiet ways to work together when possible, while not talking aloud about strategic partnerships. Modest expectations might make it possible to have better relations."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews