The blundered Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is one of the biggest foreign policy disasters of the 21st century. Yet it appears that Western countries continue to learn nothing; a sudden removal of hard power without any soft influence in its place has created a void that Beijing is all too happy to fill.
The West has ignored its ethical obligation to clean up its own mess. America has offered $500 million to aid neighboring Pakistan with its burgeoning migrant crisis. Yet considering that the war in Afghanistan cost the US $300 million per day, this figure feels like offering a water pistol to help tackle a house fire.
If the West wants to counter growing Chinese influence in the Middle East and regain a seat at the diplomatic table, then offering meaningful help to the displaced men, women, and children across Pakistan's border is a logical place to start.
Pakistan already hosts one of the world's largest refugee populations. There are officially 1.4 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, although the UN estimates that this number is actually closer to three million This makes them the third-largest refugee population in the world, after Syrians and Venezuelans.
Decades of upheaval in Afghanistan, first from the Soviets and then from the US, has only made Pakistan's northwestern border more porous.
This crisis has exploded since the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban and pledged to withdraw troops in 2021. Almost 1.5 million refugees fled to Pakistan in 2020 and the Pakistani government now expects as many as 700,000 more Afghan refugees at a potential cost of $2.2 billion, as the authorities set up camps and ways to track and feed them.
Islamabad has been left to deal with its refugee crisis alone. The Pakistani military, under the leadership of outgoing security chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, has built a fence along Pakistan's long and porous 1,622-mile land border with Afghanistan - which is now 90% complete. Yet in the midst of a fresh surge, this fence is growing increasingly futile. Hameed, widely recognised as one of the most effective Intelligence chiefs Pakistan has had in its 74 year history, is now commanding the army's Peshawar corps, in the country's Afghanistan border region. The significance of Pakistan's proximity to Afghanistan is not lost on the Pakistani state, and it should not be lost on the international community.
The United Nations has urged Afghanistan's neighbors to keep their borders open to refugees and has called on the international community to support those countries. However, Pakistan has been clear that this is a crisis that the government is unprepared to handle without international assistance and financial support. And whilst the US has offered $500 million for "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of the population", this feels like a pittance when compared with the cost of creating the migrant crisis in the first place.
Beyond aid, a Biden-led West must now prove it is serious about returning to the table of multilateralism. Meaningful and sustained engagement with Pakistan must extend beyond its humanitarian crisis; it must also seek to counter the seductive presence of Beijing's 'Belt and Road' infrastructure initiative that runs through the heart of the Middle East.
Pakistan is an obvious partner of choice in the region.
This partnership should be built on as Islamabad becomes increasingly dependent on Chinese funding. Pakistan is still trying to balance and preserve its longstanding relationship with the United States and its increasing cooperation with China. Yet strained US-Pakistan relations have pushed Pakistan into the arms of the Chinese government.
The political cost of ignoring Pakistan cannot be understated. An American absence only adds to the Chinese narrative of western decline. A Washington-shaped hole in the Middle East will only further exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan; as regional stability continues to balance on a knife-edge, this heavily nuclearized region could take one step closer to its boiling point.
Above geopolitics and the need to rebuild Western credibility, there is the ethical responsibility to innocent refugees. These are the men, women and children who have played no part in their country's demise, yet continue to feel the full brunt of it.
They have lost loved ones, homes, businesses, livelihoods, dreams, and childhoods. They seek only the very basic things so many of us take for granted: safety, shelter, clean water, a square meal, a warm bed. The West that ultimately created this humanitarian crisis, it's now their obligation to fix it.
About the author:
Adeem Younis is an English-Pakistani entrepreneur, philanthropist, and humanitarian. He is the founder of Muslim Charity Penny Appeal.