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US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and India’s limited options

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US calling back troops from Afghanistan, Biden administration, multilateral participation of China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia,, Afgan government, Taliban, Afghan polityUS calling back troops from Afghanistan, Biden administration, multilateral participation of China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia,, Afgan government, Taliban, Afghan polity Successive Afghan governments have shown an affinity for India in sharp contrast to their orientation towards Pakistan.

By Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)

When Joe Biden became the President, he inherited a looming US withdrawal from Afghanistan to signal the end of the 20-year war that consumed 2400 American lives without showing a clear win in return. Remember that Henry Kissinger had pointed out that a ‘guerilla wins if it does not lose’. Conventional armies do not have that luxury. The history of this war will undoubtedly note that the US did not wipe out the militants, failed to usher in a stable and functioning democracy, eradicate the opium trade or ensure equality for women.

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Arguably, Biden had no other viable policy options for a manoeuvre other than to announce a withdrawal. The new administration was quick to announce that all 3500 US troops would pull out by September 11, the anniversary of the attack on the twin towers and Pentagon. NATO too followed suit.

The decision was a follow-up of the Trump government’s headlong plunge to sign a deal at Doha with the Taliban that paved the way for the extraction of all forces by May 1. The agreed terms of the agreement smelt of desperation and expediency. The US negotiators sidelined the Afghan government and ignored several experts who warned that while the provisions held the US feet to fire over specific deliverables, the Taliban only had to make vague counterterrorism promises in return. The US did not insist on instituting even a mechanism to verify compliance by the Taliban.

When General Austin Miller, the NATO Forces Commander, confronted the Taliban over continuing violence, the latter had famously retorted that “the Islamic Emirate has not committed itself to any such undertaking.” The fact is that in the aftermath of the Doha agreement, the Taliban have killed over 500 civilians, primarily targeting the elite, in attacks that have used ‘sticky bombs’. The Taliban have sometimes blamed the Pakistan-supported Haqqani network for these attacks, a claim that appears specious. Indeed, the Taliban have continued blood-letting at will and only conceded not attacking the US forces.

The US-Taliban agreement stipulated that the Taliban would renounce Al Qaeda. Not only is it unclear if that will happen, but Al Qaeda has also welcomed the Doha pact with unconcealed glee because it would result in seeing the backs of the US military power.

Analysts are united in believing that the future under a Taliban dispensation does not augur well for peace and stability of the country and the region. The Taliban have not shown the slightest change of heart since they lost power in 2001. Many of the potential leaders in a Taliban government have spent years in captivity in Guantánamo and are unlikely to shed their trauma to turn a new leaf.

The Taliban influence has rapidly expanded from the countryside to urban centres. The emerging situation portends a reversal of the fragile gains of education, governance, healthcare, education, and women’s empowerment made under Karzai and Ashraf Ghani dispensations’ tutelage. The 300,000 strong Afghan Army has heavily leaned on the US forces for omnibus support. Bereft of that umbrella, it is not expected to present a formidable bulwark against a Taliban rise for long.

The scenario presents a debilitating shrinking of options for India. Over the past two decades, India has steadfastly opposed any parleys with the Taliban. Lately, it appears that the Indian foreign affairs establishment has readjusted its position to accommodate the new reality. Recently speaking in Tajikistan, the External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar supported talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The benefit to India from such an interaction between the incumbent Afghan government and the Taliban is obvious. Successive Afghan governments have shown an affinity for India in sharp contrast to their orientation towards Pakistan. It is axiomatic that if the Afghan government arrives at a suitable arrangement with the Taliban for the post-American reality, India will continue to have a foot into the door to safeguard its interests.

The US viewpoint also favours India’s interests; it has recommended an UN-backed effort with multilateral participation of China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia, and the U.S. India has supported this approach. But as far as a relationship with the Taliban goes, India has been a backbencher. The US, China, Russia and Pakistan have all reached out to the Taliban with varying degrees of influence and success. The Europeans, too, have signalled interest. India has been dependent on the success of its ‘allies’ – the US and the current Afghan government. And needless to add, it faces formidable opposition from Pakistan.

India has a strategic stake in Afghanistan’s future. A friendly-to-neutral Afghanistan obviates the ‘strategic depth’ of the Pakistani military establishment’s dreams. Over the years, India has invested a great deal in infrastructure, education, power generation and irrigation development. These efforts were made at great human and economic sacrifice. India has the mandate to build the Shahtoot dam near Kabul. Afghanistan was among the first countries to receive the anti-Covid vaccine from India. Our strategic ties with the government of the day are as strong as ever.

Yet, our strategic, security and economic interests appear to be at the mercy of unfolding events rather than our intervention. Possible failures of the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the reneging of the terms of the Doha accord by the Taliban, and the emergence of an Islamic Khalifat-style governments are not far-fetched doomsday scenarios. Each one of these is pregnant with dark possibilities for India’s interests.

In narrowing our options, an effort to engage the Taliban may be the only course that could protect our interests. That is the urgent demand for realpolitik. Given the decades of our history – or the lack of it – with the Taliban, this path will never be easy to embark upon, much less succeed. It may also be too late to make that effort. And yet, even at this late stage, that may well be a door we should knock. Our policy thus far has been to support specific groups. But Aimal Faizi, an Afghan journalist and ex-director of communications to the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has recently recommended, “India should be focused on the entire Afghan polity, not particular groups.” He says that the Taliban are a reality, and India would do well to engage with them openly.

The sobering reality is that all the other alternatives are unpleasant and dangerous. And status quo is hardly the answer because, as someone said in jest, ‘quo has already lost all status’.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Email Twitter gen_bali Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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