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February 9, 2019

After the withdrawal

Opinion

February 9, 2019

US President Trump’s statement that he wants to pull US troops out of Afghanistan has caused much concern in Kabul and, more widely, in India and Pakistan.

Given my experience of working with colleagues in Washington, I would say that the departure of Jim Mattis from the post of the US secretary of defence clearly shows that this is not what the vast majority of military, intelligence and security experts are recommending. We had always assessed that the Afghan security forces are unlikely to be able to hold off the Taliban in areas that they don’t control without foreign support.

But it certainly seems to accord with the US president’s view that ‘America First’ doesn’t necessarily mean defending the nation far from home. We know that, given their small size and dependence on US capabilities, other foreign troop contingents will realistically have little option but to depart with the US.

Of course, any withdrawal should be conditional on clear progress and guarantees from the Taliban in the current talks with the US if it is not to undermine them and tempt the Taliban to wait until US troops have departed. Unofficial comments from talks with US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad are indicating a complete withdrawal of foreign forces within 18 months, with the key conditions being a power-sharing agreement in Kabul and a guarantee of no return to Afghanistan by hardline terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda or the IS. However, if the talks are stalled or even fail completely, it is quite possible that Trump might decide to withdraw his troops anyway, though there will be no shortage of voices in Washington warning him of the potential consequences.

In reality, we knew that the Taliban were always present and held sway in significant parts of the country, even when there were nearly 150,000 Nato troops there. The central government in Kabul only ever had limited control over regional powerbrokers, whose behaviour was always primarily driven by their ethnic and economic interests.

As head of the UK’s Defense Intelligence, the British experience in Helmand, the ‘heart’ of the Taliban powerbase in Afghanistan, taught us much about them as a group. Ideology can normally be outweighed by economic interests. There are many different views (from moderate to very hardline) and a large proportion of the Taliban were fighting merely to earn a living and expel foreigners rather than through a strong ideological belief. There is a likelihood that the moderates will prevail in the talks.

Unless the Taliban renege on any deal and try to re-impose a hardline regime on the country, there is likely to be a positive economic and security impact internally in Afghanistan. And there could be some clear benefits, particularly economic ones, for Afghanistan’s neighbours, such as Pakistan. There will be no need for most of them to cross borders into other territories to seek refuge, and less incentive for them to try to export their ideology or violence. This could provide much more stability in border areas that, in turn, could reduce the motivation and perceived grievances of those who commit terrorist acts more widely.

What we also see with our clients in CTD Advisors is that foreign companies wishing to do business or invest in another country have several factors to consider. From a purely business perspective, this will naturally be driven by their assessment of market opportunities and the business environment.

Pakistan, which is struggling to come out of its economic crises, certainly has many investment opportunities, particularly for manufacturing, infrastructure and technology companies and those willing to enter into joint ventures with local businesses – though more could be done to improve the wider business environment (the ‘ease of doing business’ as the World Bank would call it).

But above all, foreign companies will normally only risk entering a market if the security situation in that particular country is sufficiently benign. This factor led directly to significantly reduced foreign direct investment (FDI) in Pakistan for several years, particularly in the period following the widespread violence in areas such as Swat, well away from the borders, in 2008-2009.

At that time, Western intelligence agencies were seriously concerned that the violence and deteriorating security situation could become much more widespread across Pakistan, even though the fact that it had spread outside the well-known border areas was seen as a likely trigger for much more firm action by Pakistan’s security forces. This proved to be the case.

The security situation has improved considerably since then and continues to get better. FDI has improved, largely due to Chinese investment in CPEC. Perhaps most significantly, British Airways has announced its decision to restart regular flights to Pakistan. This will have been the result of a very comprehensive review of security and is likely to be a considerable boost to both connectivity and confidence. But it could, of course, be undermined by one or two major security incidents.

I would assess that, at this stage, the most likely (and, by far, the most positive) outcome for the whole region is that of an inclusive power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan, which includes the more moderate elements of the Taliban.

While they have effectively outlasted the US and other foreign forces, they are also tired after so many years of fighting and an opportunity now exists for them to regain a share of power – albeit probably one where there is far less central-government control than the 2004 constitution envisaged and tried to impose.

Instability and conflict in Afghanistan have had an impact on, and been affected by, all of its neighbours. An end to violence in the country can only equally benefit all of them.

The writer is a former British Headof Defence Intelligence and iscurrently a senior member of CTDAdvisors, a London-based strategicintelligence firm.

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