When President Joe Biden made the decision last April to pull US forces out of Afghanistan after a 20-year military engagement, there was a collective sigh of relief from an American public that was disillusioned about the war years earlier. By the time the last remaining US forces withdrew from the country, a majority of Americans, including 52 percent of veterans, believed leaving Afghanistan was the right decision. The war in Afghanistan was the longest conflict in US history, and by the time it ended, Washington spent over $ 2.3 trillion and sustained thousands of American casualties in a futile attempt to prop up a corrupt, highly dependent band of Afghan politicians. The Taliban’s 10-day sweep across Afghanistan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s humiliating exile to the United Arab Emirates confirmed what many Americans long believed: War in Afghanistan was hopeless and needed to end.
About eight months since the US withdrawal, Afghanistan has been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers. While the violence has decreased significantly under the Taliban’s rule, this has less to do with the new government’s policies than with the Taliban’s consolidation of power. Afghanistan under the Taliban is very much a country in limbo, with US and UN sanctions deterring the functioning of a normal banking system, foreign reserves locked up in the New York Federal Reserve and Afghanistan’s economic prospects looking bleak to nonexistent. The UN reported that 97 percent of Afghans could be living in poverty by the middle of the year. US policy in Afghanistan remains a work in progress, with US officials balancing the need to maintain pragmatic communication with the Taliban with a desire to hold the movement accountable for human rights abuses. In March, the Biden administration canceled meetings with Taliban officials in Qatar in retaliation for the Taliban government banning girls’ education past the sixth grade.
Afghanistan is in dire straits, just as it was hanging on by a thread when 140,000 US and NATO forces were fighting counterinsurgency operations in the small, mud-brick villages of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The big difference between now and then is that Afghanistan is no longer an albatross around America’s neck. When US troops were doing the fighting and dying, the world expected the US to lead the Afghan file. Today, with US forces no longer carrying Afghanistan on their shoulders, the responsibility is now thrusted onto Kabul’s own neighbors, who have far more at stake in Afghanistan’s stability than the US ever did.
For Pakistan, a duplicitous US partner that allowed Washington to use its airspace and roads to funnel supplies into Afghanistan while its intelligence agencies supported the Taliban, a post-US Afghanistan is turning out to be far more complicated than Islamabad thought. If Pakistan believed a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would be taking orders from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency, then it was a massive miscalculation. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is turning into quite a headache for the Pakistani security establishment, which looks at its next-door neighbor and sees a country not doing much to combat anti-Pakistan insurgents operating on Afghan soil. As Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute of Peace told me, the assumption that a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would be a boon to Pakistan’s interests is misplaced. “Instead of behaving in pro-Pakistan ways,” Mir said, “the Taliban are actively challenging the status of the Afg-Pak border and enabling anti-Pakistan insurgents, such as the increasingly violent TTP.”
The Pakistani Taliban or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a distinct organization from the Afghan Taliban, is increasing attacks against Pakistani troops in the country’s tribal areas. Over 65,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism since the turn of the century. Many of those attacks were planned and conducted by organizations holed up in the country’s northwest frontier province, until a large-scale military offensive in 2014 drove many of those militants across the border into Afghanistan. But that offensive was only a short-term solution, as evidenced over the last several weeks. Seven Pakistani troops were recently killed in an ambush by a TTP faction, days after two more Pakistani soldiers were killed in two different attacks in northern Waziristan. On April 11, five police officers perished after TTP militants targeted their van with a rocket.
The Pakistanis are getting antsy, and the urge to retaliate is growing with every casualty. Over the weekend, in an audacious and bloody attack, Pakistani aircraft launched strikes against several locations in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kunar provinces, across the border from Pakistan’s tribal areas. The strikes have caused Islamabad more pain than gain and could be the beginning of a rupture between the Afghan Taliban and its former patrons in the Pakistani security apparatus. At least 45 civilians were reportedly killed in the attacks, and the Afghan Taliban Foreign Ministry summoned the Pakistani ambassador to Kabul to register a formal denunciation. Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, told Pakistan “not to test the patience of Afghans” and warned of unspecified consequences in the event of similar operations in the future.
A casual observer may look at this weekend’s violence and call it the continuation of a years-long trend in which militant groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border use ungoverned areas to perpetrate operations. Perhaps the Afghan Taliban has learned a lesson and will begin treating the TTP as mercilessly as they treat the Islamic State? Perhaps the mutual loathing of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) will be enough to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan’s new authorities to bury the hatchet? Or maybe not?
But one thing is for sure: whatever happens on the ground, the United States will be watching the region’s local powers work out their own arrangements. This is not a bad place to be, especially if the alternative was a third decade of war in Afghanistan.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
The views expressed in this article are the writer‘s own.