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.
But there was consensus among analysts that Pakistan would face policy dilemmas no matter what; that there are major risks to, as Pakistan would perceive it, to take in large numbers of refugees and there are major risks when it comes to the question of deciding to not let many in.
The second scenario with problematic implications for Pakistan dealt with terrorism risks. We had a simulation where the Taliban seized power in Kabul, galvanizing Pakistani militants and worrying Pakistani officials that they would be inspired to launch campaigns against the state and Pakistan. This is, I think, a very reasonable thing to point out and should be considered a real concern for the Pakistani state, given that the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in Afghanistan but stages its operations in Pakistan, has resurged in recent months in real life, so to speak. A new leader has united a number of splintered groups, and it's started ramping up its number of attacks in Pakistan, so it remains a threat and it could be impacted by a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
A new leader has united a number of splintered groups, and it's started ramping up its number of attacks in Pakistan, so it remains a threat and it could be impacted by a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
So what this suggests is that, while Pakistan would benefit from a successful peace process or from a situation of unending war where the Taliban remains potent but doesn't seize power, it could certainly face major risks if the Taliban seizes power and establishes an emirate.
Third, we had a scenario in which India, keen on gaining more influence in an increasingly destabilizing Afghanistan, makes contact with the Taliban, which, of course, as Umair noted, follows on something that allegedly happened in real life several weeks ago. According to this scenario, India goes further than just expanding, or trying to engage with the Taliban, but actually makes contact, gets a positive response from the Taliban, resulting in a plan for exploratory meetings between the Taliban and India to look into possible common interests.
Now, many analysts, including me, thought that this scenario was less likely than the previous two that I mentioned given the erratically different worldviews of India and the Taliban, so I wouldn't overstate the viability of this scenario, but it is important to highlight that you have the possibility, as remote as it may be, the possibility of India trying to outreach to Pakistan's most important non-state asset in Afghanistan, something that, indeed, it has reportedly done in real life just in recent weeks, though as I understand it, the Taliban has not responded to this outreach and it's denied that it took place.
Now, if we were to imagine, per this scenario, if the Taliban were to be willing to engage with India, and some analysts in their comments made clear that this would only be possible if there are tensions in the relationship with the Taliban in Islamabad; if this happened this would be a big problem for Pakistan, as it would fear that India would try to drive a wedge between Pakistan and the Taliban. That's another example of how things in Afghanistan in the coming months and coming years could play out in ways that are problematic for Pakistan.
In terms of recommendations, what should Pakistan do? I'll briefly speak about what Pakistan should do and what the US should do. I think that to be very honest, both sides have very bad choices here in terms of what they can do. I think that for Pakistan, for the Pakistani government, it has to do everything it can to convince the Taliban to stay committed to peace talks in order to reduce the threat of refugee flows, cross-border terrorism, and to reduce the chance that the Taliban will seize power and unilaterally reestablish an emirate. But this takes leverage. Pakistan has leverage, but it's not unlimited. I actually agree with Pakistani officials when they make that very comment. It has not been able to get the Taliban to reduce violence, so how can we be confident it'll succeed in keeping the Taliban committed to peace talks?
Pakistan has leverage, but it's not unlimited. I actually agree with Pakistani officials when they make that very comment. It has not been able to get the Taliban to reduce violence, so how can we be confident it'll succeed in keeping the Taliban committed to peace talks?
So Pakistan faces a real, fundamental challenge here. It needs to find the right inducements, so to speak, to convince the Taliban to commit itself to talks. I think this will entail, this would have to entail, Pakistan tightening the screws on the Taliban, but not so tight that it alienates the Taliban and risks blowback. Threatening to kick the Taliban out of Pakistan, threatening to kick the Taliban leadership out of Pakistan if it doesn't agree to a ceasefire, that's not something that Islamabad is going to do.
As for the US, I think it faces a similar dilemma with Pakistan as Pakistan does with the Taliban. It needs to figure out a way to come up with the right incentives to put its interlocutor, in this case, Pakistan, to get it to put the right type of pressure on the Taliban without taking such a hard line that it alienates Pakistan. So long as the US continues to view Pakistan as an important player in Afghanistan due to its help with the peace process and to possible counterterrorism cooperation with Washington post-withdrawal, then the US is going to need to be careful not to do anything that could jeopardize that assistance.
So long as the US continues to view Pakistan as an important player in Afghanistan due to its help with the peace process and to possible counterterrorism cooperation with Washington post-withdrawal, then the US is going to need to be careful not to do anything that could jeopardize that assistance.
It's the same dynamic that's played out for, really, over the last 20 years, where the US has struggled to get Pakistan to help the US in ways it would like in Afghanistan and has been unwilling to take much harsher steps, such as trying to sanction senior military and intelligence officials or declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. It hasn't done that because it can't afford to do that because of its dependence on Pakistan on so many levels in Afghanistan, particularly for logistics, for those supply lines. It's a similar situation now. The US continues to look at Pakistan as an essential player and it doesn't want to overly antagonize the Pakistanis.
I think it's also important here for the US not to put all its diplomatic eggs in the Pakistani basket. It needs to try to build more of a consensus involving Pakistan but also other key neighbors of Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban into agreeing to a ceasefire and to stay committed to the peace process.
If the Taliban really cares about international legitimacy, and I think that's a big if, then it should be receptive to a large global consensus advocating for the Taliban to commit itself to peace. Many of Afghanistan's neighbors are US rivals: Iran, China, Russia. But the Biden administration has shown a willingness to be open to cooperate with its rivals in areas where it serves US interests and the US sees eye to eye with these rivals when it comes to supporting a peace process in Afghanistan, so here's an area where the US can try to spearhead some type of regional consensus around the need to press the Taliban in reducing violence and committing itself to the peace process while at the same time, and this is another big challenge, working on the Afghan government's side to get it to stay united and committed to the peace process. I imagine that will be a point of discussion when Ghani and Abdullah are here in DC later this week.
Wikistrat: Thank you so much, Michael. I want to now leave the floor to you, the participants, and ask you to say something if you have any questions to Umair and/or Michael before we conclude. The floor is yours. Let me know. Any questions?
Abdul Basit: I believe regarding Umair's comment and observation that Pakistan is not going to give up its leverage on the Afghan Taliban and the same goes for the group. Look, the relationship is going to stay. There will not be a rupture. I mentioned this as well in one of the scenarios. But when I mentioned it, the nuance here is important to emphasize, which is that there is not going to be a rupture of this relationship. It is going to continue.
But from a fractal, proxy relationship, it is going to be more of a relationship of allies, maybe, because Taliban are growing in power, growing in stature, increasing their territorial size, their dependence, and diversification of their ties, so their dependence on Pakistan is minimizing. So, theoretically, it is going to transform into something, and for structural reasons, if the Taliban are to be, just say, the future rulers of Afghanistan, they will have to show some kind of independence.
For instance, as Michael said, if they're trying to engage with the Taliban, they will have to show some semblance of independence to engage with India. Now, India is a very important player in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, and they would like to have surety then from the Taliban about their investment as well as about the security of their interests in Afghanistan. For that, they will need that semblance of independence. So for structural reasons, both sides will be forced to distance. At least they will try to show that in the public space. That's it.
So my question is, we are seeing that districts after districts are now being taken over by the Taliban. As of now, the situation is really bad. My own internal feeling is Afghanistan is already unraveling. We haven't seen that scenario playing out where Afghan forces will be able to hold the urban areas. Umair and Michael, what do you make out of the current push that the Taliban are doing? Are they already going for the kill or is it like they will wait a bit? What we are seeing right now is more in the news; maybe the situation on the ground may not be as bad. Thanks.
Umair Jamal: What we have seen over the last few weeks is that I think the Taliban are trying to do both. On the one hand, they have been very successful when it comes to attacking more remote areas or districts where the Afghan army has a lot of supply chain issues and they do not get as much support as they may be in the urban areas. But at the same time, maybe they're trying to test what is the capacity of the Afghan army in the urban centers and they have faced some good challenges. In the past two weeks, there were a couple of districts where the urban areas are near or they were under attack, that the Afghan army has taken them back.
I think it's good news that the Afghan Taliban may have the numbers, they may have the strength, they may have the fighters who are willing to fight, but when it comes to making an attempt to lay siege to cities like Kabul or other big cities, I don't think the Afghan Taliban will find a lot of success there. In that scenario, they will not only build the Afghan army, I think they will face other groups within Afghanistan who would be willing to defend or help or lend help to the Afghan forces on their own, and then there will be support from the region as well.
We'll have to see what the coming Friday meeting transpires. Is the US going to remain committed to Afghan forces after the withdrawal? Because so far, the communication has been that the US may not be as engaged or supportive to the Afghan army as it has been while based in Afghanistan for all the logical reasons or because of other questions. So I think it's going to be a lot of bloodshed, it's going to be a very bad situation in the next coming weeks and months but, on the whole, I do not see the Taliban taking over major cities and holding them for long. That would also add a lot of burden on their own resources and supply chain. So that's my current take on that.
Wikistrat: Thank you, Umair. Michael?