Like in the United States, the controversy over whether the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan as part of an international coalition of forces there past the December 31, 2014 deadline is coming to a head in Pakistan.
Both critics and supporters of the presence of U.S. troops gathered in Islamabad this week, the groups meeting together in the Pakastani capital included Afghan and Pakistani elders, Taliban-allied militant groups, Pakistan religious parties and political representatives.
Whether opposed to, or supporting the continued presence of troops in Afghanistan, many fear that after the end of 2014, Afghanistan may be embroiled in a civil war similar to the one that broke out after the exit of Russia from the country in 1989.
High Peace Council of Afghanistan spokesman, Shahzada Shahid, who was present at the Islamabad meeting said there, “the fact is that Afghanistan is not Afghanistan of 12 years ago. Let me tell you that in a very small border town of Kunar [province] we have 500 schools. Similarly, we have almost complete network of paved roads, a state structure in place, we have our own currency, trade.” He feared that with the withrawal of NATO and U.S. troops that the headway made in the past 12 years may disappear.
Shahid was in the minority however, and the majority of those gathered in Islamabad were opposed to troops staying beyond the December 2014 departure date set by Washington.
Many, like former Afghan Prime Minister, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, believe that a civil war in Afghanistan is preventable and believe that peace cannot be had until foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan, he said at the two day hearings that concluded on Tuesday, “The foreign forces must withdraw – no option of being in Afghanistan because we strongly believe as far as the ISAF and American forces are in Afghanistan there will no peace at all. Afghans who are real, sincere, followers of jihad, they are fighting the invaders those who have invaded our country. Americans, they are the occupiers. This is wrong that they have come to promote democracy and justice and so on. These are all wrong slogans.”
Ahmadzai’s comments were mirrored by a statement made by Hizb-e-Islami spokesman Ghariat Baheer, “We support the courageous Afghan president and we pray that he will stick to this principle stand and will avoid signing this BSA accord with the U.S. I am advising my Afghan countrymen as well not to beg for the stay of the Americans in Afghanistan. The Americans have not come to Afghanistan at the invitation of Afghans and they are not leaving Afghanistan at the request of Afghans but they are leaving Afghanistan because of the tough resistance of Afghan mujahideen.” The group, Hizb-e-Islami has strong ties with the Taliban.
Already thinking beyond the departure of NATO and U.S. troops, a veteran politician in Pakistan, Afrasiyab Khattak, was critical of the relations and policies that Islamabad has toward Kabul. He felt that those policies needed to be revised in order to avoid another civil war in Afghanistan. He stated, “Last time when Afghanistan got chaotic it became the hub of international terrorism. This time around there is a real threat of Afghanistan becoming an origin of ethnic earthquakes and these earthquakes can spread in the region like cancer and Pakistan will be affected by it very, very fundamentality. So, I think it is in our best interest to help in stabilizing Afghanistan and befriending Afghanistan, not a party, not a group, not a particular school of thought.” He spoke of Islamabad’s continuing ties to warring Afghan factions such as the Taliban.
Pakistan’s National Security and Foreign Affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, says Pakistan has concerns that the U.S. military withdrawal may leave a vacuum that will threaten Pakistan’s security as well as the stability of the region. He said in a prepared remark prior to discussions in Washington on Monday, “Although the war in Afghanistan may be winding down, just as in the past, Pakistan will have to face the brunt of any instability that may engulf Afghanistan after 2014.”
As well as instability in the region, Pakistan will also have to contend with a diminished economy. Any deterioration in relations with its neighbor could have financial implications as Afghanistan is now Pakistan’s third largest trading partner. Even with continued stable relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan stands to lose large sums of U.S. currency with the discontinuation of NATO cargo and supply shipments into Afghanistan. In the last decade, the NATO cargo influx has created a transport sector boom.
Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai is holding off on signing the pact that will keep a small force in Afghanistan past the December withdrawal deadline due in part to a dispute over the laws that U.S. troops would be held accountable if they stayed in the country after the NATO combat mission ends.
The Obama administration has threatened to pull out all American troops at the end of the year, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that grants legal immunity to residual American troops tasked with training and assisting Afghan forces. Obama said in his State of the Union address this week, “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies.”