US exit strategy from Afghanistan under Biden Administration and Implications for Pakistan

Current Issues Presentation made at 114th NMC Lahore in end June 2021


US President has announced US and NATO troops withdrawal by September this year. That’s the 20th anniversary of US invasion of Afghanistan. Many analysts including Dr Maliha Lodhi believe US with withdraw its troops by its independence day, the 4th of July. Present status is that the US-Taliban deal of 29 February 2020 at Doha has been partially observed. 

The part dealing with no attacks on foreign forces has been religiously followed by TTA. However, intra-Afghan dialogue for future structure is stalled for want of release of Taliban prisoners. The third condition that Taliban would not allow ISIS and others to use afghan territory for planning attacks on foreign land is yet to be tested in time. 

Analysts, including Rahimullah Yousafzai, are of the opinion that Taliban are training new cadres in camps on both sides of the Durand line. The Northern Alliance, especially Ahmad Masood, the son of Ahmad Shah Masood, are building arsenals of weapons suited for long and entrenched war.

Taliban are on a roll. When Biden announced withdrawal on 14th April, Taliban controlled 19 % of territory and yesterday they were in control of ___% territory. Scores of members of afghan forces are reported to be surrendering to them with weapons and equipment.

The people I interviewed and near an absolute majority of the international and national analysts opine that civil war in Afghanistan is an absolute certainty. The Wall Street Journal has reported on 23rd that US intelligence officers have re-clocked Ashraf Ghani’s government fall from 2 years to 6 months and many say it may survive for 3 months only.

US withdrawal – A conqueror’s retreat ?

Now Joe Biden is not the first US President to announce withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. President Obama first announced a drawdown of troops in 2011. Then he announced a withdrawal of all troops by end of his tenure in 2016. It was Ashraf Ghani, recently elected then after Karzai who requested for continued support. Obama agreed to leaving 9,800 US soldiers for trainings and actions against remnants of Taliban. 

Despite Trump’s tweets in the beginning, only around 3,500 US troops were in Afghanistan when Joe Biden entered the White House.

However, what’s special about Biden’s announcement is he has done away with conditions of withdrawal altogether. It is a unilateral withdrawal on the face of it, pure and simple. There is no succession or transitory agreement or even a plan.

Biden has chosen, and emphasized, more important enemies and more diverse areas for his government’s threat perception. His priorities which he says merit investment in US blood and treasure are China for military and economic reasons and Russia for its aggressive and assertive posture. These also include North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programs. He is ending the “forever war” as main threat to US homeland is from Africa and parts of Middle East such as Yemen and Syria.

Biden, however, has stated that US will retain assets in the region to ensure that Taliban fulfill their commitment. This commitment is ensuring that there is no presence of IS or capabilities to launch an attack.

Now here lies the pressure point for Pakistan. Americans have over a dozen bases around Afghanistan, in the Middle East. However, all of these are at a distance. This is not conducive for quick counter terrorism response through fixed or rotary wing aircraft support. It is especially hard to manage drones. The CARs have under Russian pressure refused bases. A section of foreign media has reported that Indians are also not keen to enter any such arrangement. For now, the US has brought its lone aircraft career from near Japan to the Arabian Sea. However, overflights would again be an issue in access to Afghanistan. 

So, history and geography are both against Pakistan. Our previous hospitality of giving them basis, cooperation in drone overflights and sharing intelligence are now our Achilles heel. And we were handsomely rewarded till 2018. Trump mentioned 33.4 Billion dollars over 17 years.  44% of which was on account of military services provided by Pakistan. The News has reported on data compiled by EAD which says we got 4.8 billion dollars, presumably in economic aid. still, we got a lot of money on both accounts. That threat of “with us or against us” may come soon although Biden has not yet spoken to our top leader. Secretary of State Blinken has talked of free riders now not getting anything.

Some analysts say that as a super power US cannot afford to be pictured as defeated. More so when US DOD says over 2,000 troops died and over 20,000 were injured. Add to it the 170,000 Afghan casualties, leaving behind a stable system was a taken-for-granted fact. The US Congress has appropriated 143 billion dollars for Afghanistan. It is extremely difficult to digest this semblance of defeat. And that is why it needs Pakistan to share the burden of defeat and of what happens now. 

Pakistan has done nothing to allay this impression. We repeatedly took credit of getting Taliban to the negotiation table. Also, that we stand vindicated that there is no military solution. That we always recommended negotiated agreement. And probably that smirk that Taliban of sorts supported by us defeated two super powers.

We little realize that this has created an impression of us wielding considerable influence, control of Taliban. And that will have US and others conveniently pointing fingers at us for whatever the Taliban do. 

Quite a few analysts including Rahimullah Yousafzai and Saleem Safi think US is deliberately leaving Afghanistan in a lurch. It is the conqueror’s spite and there are some other scenarios I will be discussing later.

Afghanistan – Persisting Mistrust 

Afghanistan started on the wrong foot with us from the beginning. It has been obsessed with the Durand line and greater Pakhtunistan from before our independence. It even approached the Cripps Mission that the Pakhtuns living in then NWFP and Balochistan should be given two other choices too. The right to their own separate country or to join Afghanistan. It voted against us when we bid for UN membership.

60s were filled with border skirmishes and trade blockage. Bhutto’s government saw us supporting non-Pakhtun islamists like Rabbani in Afghanistan. The Afghan jehad against USSR is another story altogether. 

While calls for Pakhtunistan have died down, both Afghan Governments and Taliban still do not accept the Durand Line. An interesting incident has been quoted by Wali Nasr in his book, the dispensable nation. He tells of an interaction between Richard Holbrooke, then US President’s Special Advisor on Afghanistan and 3 Afghan Ministers on the urging of Gen Kiani that Afghanistan should accept Durand Line. Their response was that it is not politically feasible and no afghan government would do it.

Pakistani Journalists visiting Afghanistan recently report that the harsh treatment by Taliban and perceived Pakistan support for them is leading to extensive Pakistan bashing among the common people. 

Moreover, Ashraf Ghani still has around 4 years tenure left. He is not that helpless as he portrays. He is seen as symbol of gains by US and NATO and he controls Afghan Forces. He symbolizes a modern Afghanistan for youth born in last 20 years. He is pitching that he is the lesser evil and people are buying it. 

What’s definitely coming is more refugees. However, there is something wrong with our track record. We are still not popular even in those Afghan refugees who are yet to return. Those who have gone back talk of mistreatment and exploitation here. 

China – a friend in need

China has been our longtime friend and benefactor. It has invested US$ 5.7 Billion in BRI/CPEC. As an investor China requires stability in the region.

According to US Senate Committee hearings, China has considerable investments lined up in rare metals in Afghanistan. There are talks of expansion of BRI through Afghanistan that I will discuss in a bit.

On the flip side China has in the past also expressed strong reservations to Pakistan. These were on presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement fighters both sides of the border after the 2011 attacks in Xinjian. It has a strong spy network here. Rahimullah Yusafzai says it will directly charge Pakistan if things come to head in Xinjian.

With such a business portfolio, and such forthcoming support, China would expect more from Pakistan More in controlling impact of de-stabilization in Afghanistan. More of Pakistan keeping its ungoverned areas in control. More on the CPEC front as the US has been openly opposing it. And since the new Biden policy and his statements at G-7. There is always a risk Pakistan gets sucked into the move of Indian-US axis to contain China.

India – Strategic encirclement

India has invested around US$ 1 billion in construction and rebuilding of government infrastructure, dams, schools, health facilities and power stations. It has also invested in Zaran-Deralam road which connects Iranian border with Deralam. That completes the Chabahar access link. It has also provided Afghanistan with helicopters and airplanes. 

India has been suffering long due to our decision not to allow transit to its trade to Afghanistan and beyond. Resultantly, it invested in Iranian port of Chabahar despite that being a longer route. It has also investment in India-Afghan Air Freight Corridor since 2017. Loss of influence in Afghanistan is not an option for its strategic edge.

It has been using its consulates and proxies in Afghanistan to create instability in Pakistan. Topping that is the fact that Taliban don’t see India as an adversary anymore. Indian delegation met Taliban in Qatar somewhere early this year. This actually shakes the foundations of our strategic depth doctrine. Another implication is that if India considers that its policy in Afghanistan is not working, it may fire up our eastern borders. This can be through false flag operations even or simply moving forces to aggressive posture like the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in 2002. 

That will force us to move our significant deployment from western to eastern borders. Also, the cantonments are left empty with formations moving to the front. That leaves our internal security apparatus weakened. We have the APS Peshawar attack in Peshawar as an example. We cannot afford that again.

Iran – a delicate balance

Iran has over the years come out from the policy of supporting Northern Alliance alone. It has now cultivated groups within Taliban to protect its border and trade. It is under extreme stress from US and cannot afford another front. 

Also, traditionally it has been supporting Shias both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been in proxy war on Pakistani soil with Saudi Arabia. 

Iran has never cooperated on the issue of Kulbashan Jadhav. Analysts believe it has been providing refuge to trouble makers of our Balochistan. It has charged us directly for trouble in its Balochistan.

Some diplomats argue it has been supporter of Kashmir cause. But others have pointed out it has always been closer to Indian and even provided it exclusive rights to Chabahar port. And we got out of the done deal on Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline due to US pressure

Now both Gwadar and Chabahar are located on international energy trading routes. Gwadar is deep sea port with customized equipment for handling liquid energy. Both provide connectivity to central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Bother are outposts of rich mineral resources. Sartaj Azaz proposed connecting them to complement each other and increase the pie size for both Pakistan and Iran. One way of doing it providing Iran access to BRI. This requires excellent relations between Pakistan and Iran. Those can only be when we agree on Afghanistan and protect our interests jointly. 

Russian and others

Russian also has developed ingress in Taliban. There were repeated reports of it even providing them weapons. Russia’s interest is stability. As long as that is there in Afghanistan, they don’t particularly care about the form of government there. Russian may be relieved too as a super power’s presence has been removed from near its borders. But it would not only be wary of extremist elements but also of narcotics that flow freely in such situations. 

At the moment also, Tajikistan has the biggest deployment on its borders. However, the other day there were reports that Taliban have captured the check-point opposite the Tajikistan border. Border trade was resumed after one day under flag of Taliban. Seems they are again into generating revenue by protecting the transport network. Same has happened on a few border crossings with Pakistan.

It has taken Russia a long time to warm up to Pakistan. There are investment proposals also. It will be a pity to lose that to Taliban influence and instability in Afghanistan.

Turkey has recently offered to provide protection to Kabul Airport after US & NATO withdrawal. Turkey is our friend so this arrangement suits us well. But Taliban’s reaction was that foreign troops included Turks too and they need to get out too. Taliban are wary of perceived Turkish protection effort for Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance war lord.

Saudi history with Osama Bin Ladin and its recent issues with IS have it on razor’s edge. Policy shift of MBS towards moderate outlook has also heightened anxiety. It will definitely be on the lookout for IS moving to its areas through Pakistan. Being our bail-out master, we can ill afford annoying it.

Qatar has provided office to Taliban since 2013. They were preferred over Turkey and Saudi Arabia by all sides being neutral. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain & Egypt cut ties with Qatar in 2017. Plea was it was financing and hosting 7 Taliban extremists freed from Guantanamo Bay who were planning against them. 

Eventually the Doha agreement was carried out between US & Taliban. Pakistan is friendly on both sides of the divide and has diaspora in all major Middle East countries including Qatar. Qatar is still hosting the intra-Afghan dialogue and that alone requires Pakistan to continue having excellent relations with it while not annoying its opponents in the Middle East.

TTA – Not a monolith

The impression that Taliban are somehow at the mercy of Pakistan and accept what it says is inherently false. Despite Pakistan’s beseeching they did not hand over Osama Bin Laden to USA in 2001. Similar, appeals to spare the Bamiyan Buddha relics fell on deaf ears. They are at the moment in a euphoria of defeating a super power, again. 

All major players, including USA, Russia, China, Saudi, Iran, Turkey, India have direct relations with them. They are financially self-reliant. They have control over large territory.

Their shura no more lives in Pakistan. They are either aboard or moved from Quetta to inside Afghanistan. They have shown quite extreme anger at Pakistan for not recognising their emirate. Their control over IS and other groups is not known and so not verifiable.

The Wall Street Journal reported on 24th that US intelligence has reduced the time of fall of Kabul govt from 2 years to 6 months. And that Mazar e Sharif was now filled with armed militia opposed to Taliban.

To conclude, it will be fallacy on part of Pakistan to even think that it has valid control over TTA. 

Events have happened after I submitted my presentation. Firstly, PM Imran Khan gave a lengthy video-interview to New York times 4 days ago, talking on Afghanistan and US withdrawal. He categorically stated that since US announcement of withdrawal Pakistan had claimed victory and were no more listening to Pakistan. 

Significantly, Mulla Baradar the head of political office has issued a policy statement that an Islamic regime is solution to both domestic issues such as corruption, elimination of narcotics and international issues. He mentioned United States by name in international issues stating that Taliban control will pose no harm to other states, foreign diplomats and NGOs.

This was followed by a 24th June statement of deputy leader Siraj ud Din Haqqani directing his fighters to convert from military to civil mode. They were instructed not to harm anyone laying down weapons, not to destroy buildings and record. He wanted staff maintained for municipal work.

So, the TTA is coming more wisely and with a more moderate good governance model face, for want of choice of better words, this time around.

CPEC + – The Great Game

Last week of April Presidents of Russia and China met on BRI. A CPEC integration plan was discussed. 3 branch corridors from main BRI will integrate nations of Central Asia, West Asia and Africa. N-CPEC + will pass through Afghanistan to CARs and Russia. The proposal even includes India and even a name change to satisfy it. It is called Central Eurasian Corridor. Western Corridor runs to Turkey and Southern through Iran. Again, the point on Chabahar and Gwadar.

But Afghanistan is the shortest and cheapest route and peace there is critical. With TAPI and trilateral railway that’s planned between them and Uzbekistan railway projects connecting CARs, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a win win for everyone. All regional powers and Afghanistan benefit. The only one left out is the USA. And therefore, it makes one wonder if hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan is also meant to create trouble in the region and block this alpha of mega projects.

Internal Challenges and Blowback

Pakistan hosted 4 Mil Afghanis at one time in 2001. After voluntary return the number has come down to 1.44 million. The fresh intake of refugees will stress the infrastructure, job market, small businesses through competition and social protection initiatives. Health and education facilities will also be burdened due to added numbers. Like previous time there will be an increase in crimes and narcotics trade impacting our children. Afghan narcotics, as per UNODC, reach all parts of the globe except South America. And they used to provide Taliban in 2001 approximately 100 million dollars. Primary source of funding in addition to minerals and transport.

We still have gaps in fencing in our border. Minister Interior did announce that the fence will be complete icy 30th June. It seems difficult. This allows miscreants to move across border and enter Pakistan without trace. This is a serious security hazard. When civil war ensues, the spill over will definitely come to our ungoverned areas in merged districts. Our own TTP will reinvigorate itself and find safe havens across the border.

Even wars have economy and we will still require to support ATT and bilateral trade. Transport business is critical and will need to run smoothly despite hinderances of warlords and others.

Blow back will definitely come, from our own TTP, from elements which will blame us for all the ills in Afghanistan. And also, from proxies. Previously too, from year 2001 to 2018, the total loss of life in Pakistan was 74,000 combatants and non-combatants and the economic loss was calculated at 123 billion dollars.

Deja vu for Pakistan

It’s Deja vu!! Only actors have changed with positions. Mujahideen have been replaced by Taliban, Dr. Najeeb by Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Soviet Union by the U.S. Pakistan is the constant character that had to bear the burden in the past, and again has no choice but to share the looming fate of Afghanistan in the future, too.

Finger pointing is getting popular again. It started with Karzai and Obama. Obama even came out with new hot pursuit policy which led to rapid increase in drone attacks and casualties. And Ashraf Ghani has been spewing venom against Pakistan repeatedly. He once said that the claimed USD 500 Million Pakistan plans to spend on development in Afghanistan should be spent on it controlling groups in it supporting. Our investments in building road to Jalalabad, hospital and other infrastructure doesn’t register with Afghan rulers at least. 

PM Imran Khan gave an important interview to the New York Times, published on 26th January. I will quickly go through this as it happened after submission of CrIP and has very important points. He said that he wanted to have civilized relationship with US, like they had with UK or India – relationship based on equality and trade.

The Prime Minister recognised that Pakistan is strategically located to 2 largest markets of India and China. Also, for the energy corridor, Central Asia and Iran. This recognition in itself bodes of some strategy to ensure stability in Afghanistan and to take everyone on board, especially India, for collective economic benefits.

If there is a civil war, all goes down the drain – were his exact words.


Based on analysis, it is clear that there are overwhelming chances of civil war in Afghanistan and, rightly or wrongly, finger pointing towards Pakistan. However, with Taliban softening of stance and taking peripheral areas with ease it seems that will come when Kabul and areas of Northern Alliance become the target.

Pakistan is on this ice. It cannot take sides based on both ethnic or sectarian grounds. Tajiks and Shias do carry weight within the overall picture in Afghanistan. So does an elected Government and the aspirations of youth it reflects. Similarly, between regional and international players, including US and China. 

The economic benefits of CPEC & BRI, the proposed mega-infrastructure and connectivity of CPEC + and coordination between Gwadar and Chabahar are obvious indications of a singular economic and energy block. It ensures a bright future for the whole region including Eurasia and Africa. Benefits are complimentary to joint ventures on this, including India.

Refugees are coming our way – sooner or later. Border management is critical including border fence and strict check on entry exit from Afghanistan. Resurgence of TTP, hike in crimes, drug trade, stress on defence and infrastructure are inevitable.

Similarly, there are good chances we go to the initial days of war on terror. We will again have ungovernable areas in our western territories. There are strong chances of extreme law and order situation including bombings and other terrorist activities – both on civilians and law enforcement agencies – including their assets.

Probability is when gets stressed in Afghanistan and perceives being singled out, it will raise the ante on our eastern front. That will stretch our military physically and our oft-criticized defence budget financially. 


Pakistan should not take sides internally or locally within Afghanistan while emphasizing peaceful solution and transition. Its already part of the AAfghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity agreement, the Pakistan-China-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue,  Moscow Format consultations and others. It should proactively – and visible seem to – continue engagement at all levels.

US is hurt. Whatever our reservations, it has remained our long-term partner and desperate. So, while a firm no on bases must continue, we should give it any help in land and air corridors for a smooth withdrawal.

We must take advantage of our geo-strategic location as hub and transit for BRI and the CPEC + concept. We should not bring history on Kashmir, the trouble in Balochistan or previous misgivings about Russia in play at this moment. Act mature and get the biggest economic development package done. This benefits all regional powers including India and Iran.

Early completion of fencing must be ensured. Its proper manning has to be done at all costs. Strict visa regime needs to be set in place at Torkham and Chaman. We must ensure filtration of every coming from Afghanistan, including the refugees.

To minimize chances of blowback and to alley reservation of afghan refugees, we must have a plan for formalizing business benefits including opening of accounts, owning of businesses, lease of property against property rights and other measures. We should provide scholarships to Afghan students. Like western states we should launch an immigration policy which provides opportunity of mainstreaming of talented, exceptionally qualified refugees. This will benefit both us by bringing in eventual brain drain from Afghanistan to our benefit and also take the disgruntled “planners” out of the equation of retribution.

And lastly, this time around Pakistan should not be a safe haven for Afghan groups or proxies. That impression that we do that has been one of the reasons of the blowback. Massive deployment of troops and development as confidence building measures in tribal areas and Balochistan border areas must be carried out.