(13 January 2012) — As the US starts to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, global security analysts are voicing fears that the exit would mark the return of a global terrorism infrastructure in the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“It is only a matter of time before the Taliban returns to rule Afghanistan. The big question is whether it has learnt its lesson during the last decade of war with the US, and is willing to give up its links with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda,” Dr D. Suba Chandran, director at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), a New Delhi-based centre for peace and security studies in South Asia, told Asia360 News.
“Doubts persist about that because the Taliban refused to snap the links even after the 9/11 attack, which led to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in the first place,” Dr Chandran said.
The US withdrew 10,000 troops from Afghanistan before an end-2011 deadline set by US President Barack Obama. This was the first step in the planned pull-out of combat forces that involves the recalling of a further 23,000 US troops in the summer of 2012 and a complete exit by the end of 2014.
Under the strategy, which aims to continue a long, slow war to convince the Taliban that they cannot win, US advisers would be attached to Afghan combat units to provide them military intelligence and to call on US backup forces when needed.
However, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s troops not expected to win the war against the Taliban, the country could be thrown back to the 1990s, when the violently-enforced Islamised Taliban rule turned it into a breeding ground for terrorists across the globe.
“Unless a legitimate political solution is put into place, Afghanistan will spiral into a full blown civil war between the Pashtun [the tribe to which the Taliban belongs] dominated south and the Tajik and Uzbek minority factions in the north,” Michael Hughes, an Afghanistan observer, pointed out.
The US military withdrawal would allow intensified fighting and spark a race between Pakistan and India to step in.
Pakistan would try and ‘install’ a friendly regime in Afghanistan, even if it means backing the Taliban. India, Afghanistan’s biggest regional aid donor with US$1.3 billion worth of current projects from construction of the parliament building to highways, fears that the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan could expose it to a hostile, Islamist militant-infested neighbourhood.
India’s fears are further raised by the prospect of the reduced space that the US would be left with to carry out its strikes against terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. Once out of the firing range of US drones and helicopters, terrorists who converge in this volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border region can easily carry out their mission of mayhem in South Asia.
As it were, Pakistan’s relations with the US have soured after a NATO bombing accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops on November 26. Since then, the US has halted drone strikes from its base in Pakistan, allowing the resurgence of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told CNN on November 9, 2011, that the period after the withdrawal of US troops would be a very difficult one for the region. “I get a feeling that maybe we will revert to the regional instability that preceded the 2001 US-led invasion”, he said.
But it is not just India and Pakistan that may be affected by the US military withdrawal. China will be keeping a close eye on the situation too as it continues to battle Islamist separatists in the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which are said to receive arms training in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Terrorist elements that form the sleeper cells in much of the rest of the world also trace their roots back to Afghanistan.
In the absence of US and NATO troops and with more than a third of its people unemployed and living below the poverty line, a fragile and turbulent Afghanistan may prove to be a security hazard for its immediate neighbours and beyond.