South Asia experts, Mr. Umair Jamal and Mr. Michael Kugelman share insights and strategic recommendations pertaining to the implications of the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Wikistrat recently conducted a webinar with Mr. Umair Jamal and Mr. Michael Kugelman, two leading experts on Pakistan and South Asia who had participated in Wikistrat's simulation assessing the impact of different post-US withdrawal scenarios from Afghanistan on Pakistan.
Jamal and Kugelman discussed their main insights from the simulation and provided strategic recommendations to the different actors based on these insights. These recommendations to Pakistan and the United States, as well as other countries, addressed how they should act before, during, and on the day after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Mr. Umair Jamal is a senior South Asia analyst from Pakistan, and head of the Politics desk at the Business Recorder.
Mr. Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center from the United States.
Wikistrat: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Wikistrat's concluding webinar to our recent simulation “From Pakistan's perspective, the implications of the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Before I introduce our distinguished guests for today, I'd like to share with you some concluding numbers regarding the simulation. In total, 30 different experts participated in the simulation and while these experts were from different countries and continents, no less than half of them were arriving from Pakistan.
During the simulation, we had some wonderful discussions, interactions among participants over different topics and opinions, and most importantly, you and the rest of the experts contributed over 68 – again, 68 – different responses to the five post-US withdrawal scenarios that we presented you with. These numbers provided us with a lot of insights and strategic key takeaways, and that's exactly what we're going to talk about with our guests today, and later on when we will publish and share with you our final insights report.
Finally, let me introduce today's guests. Our first guest is Umair Jamal. Mr. Umair Jamal is a senior South Asia analyst from Pakistan. Our second guest is Mr. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center from the United States. Umair, Michael, thank you so much for being here today.
Umair Jamal: Thank you.
Michael Kugelman: Thanks. Good to be here with you.
Wikistrat: My first question is, what were your main key takeaways from the simulation? And the second one is, based on these key takeaways, what strategic recommendations would you offer for Pakistan, the US, and/or any other relevant stakeholders with regards to the day after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Umair Jamal: I’d start with the scenarios we faced in the simulation. The first was the refugee crisis and the second, the peace process coming back one year after the withdrawal, and then regarding India's goal and China's goal in Afghanistan, and the last was the Taliban, with the scenario they end up seizing Kabul.
My takeaway after seeing all the responses, I think the situation is looking really bad in Afghanistan; not just for Afghanistan, but for Pakistan as well.
If you look at what has happened over the last two months since particularly Biden announced the withdrawal, which formally he said would happen by September 11th, but all different reports indicate that it's being rushed and it may be completed but in a span of one more month, so we have seen violence has escalated in Afghanistan. Reports claim that around 35 to 40 districts have fallen to the Taliban. There have been high casualties on both sides, including the Afghan forces. There are reports of different militias being raised and there was a change of command the other day. The interior minister was changed and the army chief was also changed by the current administration.
The peace process has stalled. We haven't seen any significant development on that. All we hear every day is everyone engaged in the process is committed to the intra-Afghan dialogue where things are now, but we don't see anything happening beyond those statements. More importantly, which I think is the factor which could be discussed further, is that the US reduced support in Afghanistan, be it militarily or the funding supporting of one group, has been something which has really added to, on the Taliban side, to their advantage, and on the government side, to their disadvantage. Many people are seeing casualties being increased disproportionately.
One takeaway is that the US withdrawal, the rushed withdrawal, has exposed underlying fears that the Afghan peace process was not actually going anywhere and it's not going anywhere now.
I think one takeaway is that the US withdrawal, the rushed withdrawal, has exposed underlying fears that the Afghan peace process was not actually going anywhere and it's not going anywhere now. The other day, the Taliban said that they wanted a genuine Islamic system being implemented in Afghanistan and the question of women's rights and other issues being guided by the kind of Islamic system they want to be implemented, and if we look at that, there's no meaningful discussion, even in our simulations, there wasn't any discussion on where the Afghan peace process is now. All we are discussing is all the possible scenarios, which are looking like the real possibility now.
I think that they [the Taliban] are not committed to the peace process. Their intent is very clear. They want the foreign troops to leave. They want to push towards a complete takeover.
One Taliban has said they're talking, as well as they're making battlefield gains. I think that they're not committed to the peace process. Their intent is very clear. They want the foreign troops to leave. They want to push towards a complete takeover, which was our last scenario, but I think it's going to be really... That sort of a question which everyone said is not going to be possible for all the different reasons from a military point of view to other scenarios where the regional players, including Pakistan, China, Russia, or the US, they're not going to support the complete takeover of the Afghan Taliban and that will have its own complications.
There's a high possibility on the question of India opening talks with the Afghan Taliban. There's a possibility of Afghan, Pakistan, Afghan Taliban relations going haywire. I'm sure everyone has seen it. There was a report last week, or about two weeks ago, in the Indian press where the Indian security agencies, they're trying to explore opening talks with some groups of the Afghan Taliban which they believe are not as close to Pakistan as maybe others. But if it's happening, it's not going to make Pakistan happy. If it's about India and Afghanistan, all bets are off and we can expect anything in that scenario.
My recommendations are that now is the time for everyone to be engaged, from regional countries to the US and even in place from inside Afghanistan, to give a renewed push to the peace process. Something has to happen before the US pulls out, which I think is very important.
The second would be to support the Afghan forces. I'm sure everyone has seen the incoming visit of the Afghan president to the US on Friday and we'll know more, what happens in that will... But I believe that the US will underscore that it's committed to the plan, democratic forces committed to the plan, military, and they will not just leave and vanish, so that will be also important.
US counterterrorism presence in the region is also something which I believe is very important, and we have all seen over the last month or so developments regarding the question of bases in Pakistan or with the US trying to find space to house its assets in the region. One is Pakistan in the discussion. The second is in central Asia, but all eyes are on Pakistan.
There was a very interesting interview the other day. The PM, Khan, talked about, he famously said... It's all across social media in Pakistan now, and Michael, if I am right, was very busy for the last two days explaining to everyone what the prime minister actually said with "Absolutely not."
The second point is the prime minister did not clearly say that Pakistan will not give airspace to the US. He was very sure on the point of not providing bases for the US, but he was not very clear on the question of can the US military use Pakistan airspace if their bases are housed somewhere else, maybe in the Middle East or in Qatar or Kuwait.
So I think the discussion is there. It's happening but what can people try to find out some solution. Pakistanis may want that to happen but there are other concerns, beginning from the Afghan Taliban saying that they would not welcome any development with China and Russia, so that's another thing which is going to be very important, but US presence is going to be a very, sort of necessity when it comes to holding Al Qaeda accountable or containing the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
China's role is going to be very important, which I think is already being noticed. China will have to offer a lot of support after the US has left, and Pakistan would like China to play a role which Islamabad would actually welcome
Another recommendation would be that regionally, countries should ensure that Afghanistan does not become another proxy clown for Pakistan and India. That's going to be important because if that happens, no one knows what Pakistan’s policy will be. If we are to look at how the history has been, my view is that Pakistan will double down on its support for the Afghan Taliban regardless of how much they heed the Pakistani authorities. They are responsive to Pakistan. Pakistan will offer its support to the Afghan Taliban in that context.
China's role is going to be very important, which I think is already being noticed. China will have to offer a lot of support after the US has left, and Pakistan would like China to play a role which Islamabad would actually welcome, so I think we are in the midst of a very uncertain and very complicated situation.
Things are not looking good, particularly for Pakistan, because of the concern regarding the refugee crisis. There are already more than two, three million refugees in Pakistan. Pakistan made an effort to send them back, but we are now looking at a scenario where we may have thousands more coming in the next six months or one year. I think that's Pakistan's biggest concern. And then the security crisis and the Taliban developing its bases there. So it's all very complicated and I think we'll have to see what happens next.
Wikistrat: Thank you, Umair. I mentioned that there were 68 different responses from our different experts. Was there anything that surprised you in terms of the responses? Whether it is something that you already had in mind or something that completely surprised you, was there anything that kind of caught you by surprise?
Umair Jamal: Yes, I think one in particular where some people argued that Afghan Taliban will leave Pakistan and leave Pakistan for good and they will cut their relationship with Pakistan because they have territory.
They already control more than 50 or 60% of Afghanistan, and in the coming months, they will have more influence and territorial control in Afghanistan, so that, in a way, means that they do not need Pakistan anymore.
I was really surprised by that scenario. I do not believe it's practical for the Taliban. They do understand that. They do not know that the international community's supporting that, but that does not mean they could become and negotiate again with the international community coming back to them, and they will always need those bases back in Pakistan.
It's sort of their strategic depth in Pakistan and they would never want to leave, particularly the Haqqani network and other groups which are closer to Pakistan. I think I absolutely disagree with that scenario.
And Pakistan wouldn't want to push them out. What you can say is that they have a relationship. They have ties with a group that has done its bidding in Afghanistan, so they would want to continue doing it, if not in the way they listened to Pakistan 20 years ago, but maybe if it's curtailed, but they will still want the Afghan Taliban to be their people in Afghanistan. I think both sides understand their limitations and relationship and they will continue to depend on each other.
Wikistrat: Thank you, Umair. Michael, I ask you the exact same question I asked Umair. What were your main key takeaways from the simulation, and based on these key takeaways, what strategic recommendations would you offer for Pakistan and the US and any other relevant stakeholders in the region and outside of the region?
Michael Kugelman: Thank you, Einat. Great to be here with you and everyone else here. I really enjoyed hearing those comments from the always thoughtful Umair. My views will largely track with Umair's, particularly in terms of how these simulations underline the need to be pretty skeptical about the Afghanistan situation moving forward and what it means for Pakistan.
These simulations, pushed back against what I view as a fairly common and, to some extent, accurate, but nonetheless oversimplified and, ultimately, flawed assessment of what the US withdrawal from Afghanistan means for Pakistan, and that assessment is this: whatever happens post-withdrawal is a good thing for Pakistan.
These simulations, for me, pushed back against what I view as a fairly common and, to some extent, accurate, but nonetheless oversimplified and, ultimately, flawed assessment of what the US withdrawal from Afghanistan means for Pakistan, and that assessment is this: whatever happens post-withdrawal is a good thing for Pakistan.
According to this view which, again, I think is flawed, unending war with increasing destabilization will make a potent Taliban even stronger, a net benefit for Pakistan because the Taliban is Pakistan's key asset and helps ensure Pakistani influence and access in Afghanistan. On the other hand, if the peace process picks up – that's a big if – and there's a settlement, the Taliban would presumably secure a considerable degree of power and that would be a great outcome for Pakistan as well, which seeks a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.
So, what did the simulations tell us, or tell me, about this assessment, this prediction? Certainly the scenarios, the simulations did not suggest that there will not be positive outcomes for Pakistan moving forward. I think many of us, if not most of us, participating in the exercise concluded that Pakistan will continue to enjoy leverage and influence in Pakistan because of the Taliban, whose strength will continue to increase regardless of whatever scenario plays out ultimately in Afghanistan in the coming months.
We also concluded that the role of China can bring added benefits for Pakistan. One of our scenarios entailed China making some deals with the Taliban in which the insurgents allowed Beijing to do infrastructure projects in Afghanistan so long as China gave the Taliban a cut of the profits from those projects. Given Pakistan's alliance with China, anything that benefits China in Afghanistan will generally benefit Pakistan as well.
Given Pakistan's alliance with China, anything that benefits China in Afghanistan will generally benefit Pakistan as well.
But some of the most interesting simulations highlighted how there really can be problems, big problems, for Pakistan post-US withdrawal. We had three scenarios that dealt with the possibility of deleterious implications for Pakistan.
Umair hit on each of these briefly, so I'll repeat and just underscore some of what he had said earlier. One was a scenario in which there was a surge in refugee flows to Pakistan because of scaled-up violence in Afghanistan. There was some disagreement among analysts, including myself, about how many refugees Islamabad would take in, how generous it would be, how it would weigh the need to take many in but also the risks of taking many refugees in.