US withdrawal from Afghanistan: Will Pakistan pay a high price?

Pakistani flag
4 min read
24 May, 2021
Analysis: Pakistan is bracing for the impact of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, with fears of increased insecurity.

While the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, aimed to be completed by 11 September, is expected to intensify instability in the country, there are also fears of volatility shifting to neighbouring Pakistan.

In late April, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle in the parking lot of the Serena Hotel in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing five and injuring 13 others.

The alleged target of the attack was the Chinese ambassador, who was not present in the hotel when the bomb exploded.

It was claimed by the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, who had largely fled to Afghanistan since Islamabad launched a counterterrorism offensive, Zarb-e-Azb, or Sharp and Cutting Strike, in 2014.

Amid the group’s re-unification efforts and an uptick in activity, many security analysts believe Pakistan will experience more terrorist attacks after the US pullout. Both the TTP and Baloch separatists have identified Chinese interests as one of their immediate targets.

"Many security analysts believe Pakistan will experience more terrorist attacks after the US pullout"

Since US and NATO troops have begun to withdraw, Afghanistan has already experienced an increase in violence. In one of the worst incidents, more than 85 people were killed when a bomb attack targeted a girl's school in Kabul in early May.

Pakistan is now worried that surging violence could spill over.

In the most recent incident on 5 May, militants opened fire at Pakistani soldiers in the southwestern Balochistan province who were installing a fence along the Afghan border, killing four.

In a separate incident, a shootout in North Waziristan saw three Pakistani soldiers killed during a raid on a militant hideout. The area used to be the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban.

Both incidents indicate the presence of terrorist groups who are now able to operate from ungoverned regions with more freedom due to the withdrawal of US forces. Many now fear a return to the violence of the 1990s, when bomb attacks across the country were a frequent occurrence as militant groups mushroomed.

Pakistan is also worried about an influx of refugees if fighting in Afghanistan escalates because of power struggles between Afghan factions.

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Fierce exchanges between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in the Helmand province in early May forced more than 1,000 Afghan families to flee their homes after US forces handed over several military bases.

Pakistan already hosts over two million Afghan refugees and the country's weak economy is unable to absorb more numbers.

Certainly, Pakistan will grapple with new security challenges as instability intensifies. After achieving its objectives against the Soviet Union, the US largely abandoned Afghanistan as the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s.

It also ignored the subsequent difficulties borne by Pakistan, including bomb attacks and the influx of refugees. This time, as the US leaves after a 20-year war against the Taliban, Pakistan is not alone, with Russia and China ready to step in.

Both Moscow and Beijing will stand by Islamabad to counter terrorist threats emanating from post-US Afghanistan, 60% of which remains in the hands of a politically and militarily stronger Taliban.

"This time, as the US leaves after a 20-year war against the Taliban, Pakistan is not alone, with Russia and China ready to step in"

But Pakistan, politically and logistically, holds a trump card in the Afghan endgame through its leverage over the Taliban, having already played a key role of facilitator during the two-year peace negotiations between America and the group.

Russia is well aware of Pakistan's importance in this respect. In April, Afghanistan topped the agenda of Moscow-Islamabad talks, in the first visit by a Russian foreign minister since 2012. The trip by Sergey Lavrov came at a crucial time as the US was announcing its withdrawal plan.

Furthermore, Moscow wants this trump card in its hands in a post-US Afghanistan and has shown its willingness to supply Pakistan with military equipment to strengthen the country’s counterterrorism abilities.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has also conveyed a message to the Pakistani leadership that he is open to cooperation on the construction of gas pipelines and in the area of defence. Some have interpreted this as Russia essentially offering Pakistan a blank cheque.

In Afghanistan, with multi-billion-dollar investments in the Aynak copper and gold project, oil exploration projects, and extensive railway infrastructure development, China is still the largest foreign investor in the war-wracked country.

Beijing has also offered infrastructure and energy projects worth billions of dollars to the Taliban in return for peace in Afghanistan, including the construction of road networks to boost commerce and trade. 

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including the 'Economic Development of Balochistan.'

Follow him on Twitter: @fazlehaider