Post-withdrawal Strategy; The US ties stability in South Asia to the stability in Afghanistan

At the same time as announcing the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, the US Department of Defense has submitted its semi-annual report on strengthening security and stability in Afghanistan, which is related to the second half of 2020, to the US Congress. The report addresses issues related to the status and assessment of threats, the assessment of Afghan security forces, security institutions and the budget of the security and defense forces. Part of the report on Afghanistan peace states that the United States, in line with its strategy, calls for a regional approach to increasing regional stability by creating a broad consensus for a stable Afghanistan. Thus, the United States has linked the security and stability of South Asia to the security and stability of Afghanistan and called on the countries of the region to cooperate with Afghanistan in this regard. The report highlights the views and concerns of some neighboring countries and the region on peace in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of international troops. Some of these concerns include a confrontation between the goals of India and Pakistan since both countries are concerned about the nature of their influence in Afghanistan. Earlier, sources said that after the withdrawal, the United States would leave Afghanistan to neighboring countries and the region and would take immediate action in the event of possible threats to its interests.

The US Department of Defense released its report entitled “Semi-Annual Report: Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” on Friday, March 23rd. The report includes an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan from June 1, 2020 to the end of November of that year. The report, previously presented to the US Congress, focuses on six objectives: “Strategies and Objectives”, “Current Situation and Threat Assessment”, “Assessment of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces”, “Afghan Ministry of Defense and National Defense Force” and “Ministry of Interior and Afghan Security Forces”, and “Budget of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces”.

The Pentagon said in a report that its goal in Afghanistan was to prevent the use of its territory as a safe haven for terrorist organizations against the United States and its allies. The United States is reportedly pursuing this goal through two missions, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and Counter-Terrorism with the help of Afghan security forces. The country has called the counterterrorism mission complementary to NATO’s (TTA) training, advisory and assistance mission, and has said it will use the force against ISIS, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Part of the report also refers to the “South Asia Strategy”. The Pentagon says its approach to implementing the South Asian Strategy in Afghanistan is so-called “R4 + S”, which includes “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.” The Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Indian subcontinent continue to threaten Afghanistan’s stability and security with revenues from various sources, including drug trafficking, illegal taxes, extortion, illegal mining, and foreign finance has remained stable, the Pentagon report said. The report states that the Taliban continue to be supported by Pakistan and some other neighboring countries and including the Haqqani network, are considered a major threat to Afghanistan’s stability. The Taliban are said to be increasing pressure on Afghan security forces.

The United States is handing over Afghanistan to neighboring countries and the region

However, the “Regional Actor Impact” section states that the US strategy requires a regional approach to increasing stability in South Asia by creating a broad consensus for a stable Afghanistan. The strategy is also said to emphasize regional integration and cooperation, international support for an Afghan-owned Afghanistan, the intra-Afghan peace negotiation process and the accountability of countries working to undermine Afghanistan’s stability. The report addresses the views and concerns of all neighboring countries and the region on the Afghan peace process and the withdrawal of international troops.

For Russia, it is stated that the country wants a complete, but phased, withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Russia is putting itself in a position to increase its influence in Afghanistan and address the potential security challenges posed by instability, the report said. Russia supports the intra-Afghan peace talks as the best way to establish an interim government and facilitate the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the report said. Russia has also been said to be in contact with the central government, Afghan politicians, regional influencers and the Taliban, and so far there has been no evidence that the country is moving against US troops in Afghanistan.

Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, view Central Asia in terms of Afghanistan’s stability and security, and are concerned about the spread of ISIS in the region, which has the potential to destabilize Afghanistan’s neighbors, the report said. The US Department of Defense has said that Uzbekistan still wants to take responsibility and play a constructive role in the intra-Afghan peace talks, regional leadership and economic ties with Afghanistan.

In the case of Pakistan, it has also been said that it supports peace talks as a way to end conflicts and has helped advance the peace process. According to the report, Pakistan tends to exert influence in the region and sees itself as a major facilitator of intra-Afghan peace talks, especially concerning the Taliban. According to the US Department of Defense, Pakistan feels threatened by a potential Taliban takeover and is still trying to prevent Afghanistan from aligning with India under any circumstances.

The US Department of Defense has also addressed Iran’s point of view. The report states that Iran supports the Taliban in a “measured” way besides trying to strengthen ties with the Afghan government. Iran’s interests lean towards the withdrawal of the United States and NATO, the elimination of ISIS, the increase of economic and security relations with the Afghan government, the provision of water rights and the improvement of border security. According to the United States, Iran in the past has increased its ties with the Taliban and the Afghan government, besides calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops, it has declared the Taliban peace agreement with the United States “illegitimate.”

The United States has also said that while China is pursuing the issue of the Afghan government and the Taliban for regional stability, it is skeptical about the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks and is therefore among several possible outcomes. According to the US Department of Defense, China has not been a major economic partner in Afghanistan due to instability and the security situation, but it benefits from NATO-provided security in Afghanistan. It is thus said that leaving without the necessary security guarantees destroys this advantage because China will not replace NATO as a security guarantor. For this reason, the United States believes that this situation puts China at a crossroads. A situation that, on the one hand, must ensure the security of its personnel and investments in Afghanistan, and, on the other hand, protect the eastern border of Afghanistan from Uyghur fighters.

For India, it was also stated that the country is cooperating with countries in the region, the Afghan government and politicians to prevent safe transnational terrorist sanctuaries and maintain access to Afghanistan as the gateway to the Asian markets. The report cites these two as India’s biggest concern for Afghanistan’s stability. The United States thus sees the possibility that India sees the ongoing peace process as an opportunity to gain more influence in Afghanistan and to remove previous barriers to Pakistani influence. Given India’s approach to the region, the United States has said India can gain more influence in Afghanistan, but will not provide political support to the Taliban and will stand by the Afghan government.

The United States has also concluded that the Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are pursuing a stable Afghanistan and supporting international efforts to establish a ceasefire and reach a political agreement. Qatar’s support for hosting the intra-Afghan talks has been cited as an example.

The United States, meanwhile, has expressed concern about the escalation of violence in Afghanistan, saying terrorist groups remain a serious challenge to Afghanistan, the United States and its allies. According to the US Department of Defense, terrorist groups threaten the stability of Afghanistan, but have no territory and protect themselves on the international border, mountainous parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and remote areas of the country. It is alleged that al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ISIS have focused their attacks on South Asia. The United States has made it clear that any subsequent threat is more directed at South Asia, and that neighboring countries and the Afghan region must feel responsible. Sources have previously said that the United States has decided to hand over Afghanistan to neighboring countries and to take immediate action in the event of a threat to its interests.

The report presents the US strategy for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops, which is currently at a standstill, and the holding of the Istanbul Conference is in a state of ambiguity. Earlier, the United States stressed the need to hold the conference as soon as possible and said that it would withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan by September 11. Thus, the United States will end its presence in Afghanistan after this date, but will continue its cooperation.