Dr D K Giri
merican President Joe Biden has set September 2021 as the new deadline for the US troops to pack off from Afghanistan. The NATO soldiers will follow suit. Afghanistan government will be left to defend itself. President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has reassured his country and other Afghan watchers that his government is capable of defending the country’s security. This is more a rhetoric than reality. His main adversary, Taliban, actively supported by Pakistan and its mentors, will prove to be stronger and savaging in revenge and retaliation, after the American withdrawal.
The grave concern haunting peace builders is where this security vacuum leaves India and Afghanistan. Contrary to some optimistic observations made by experts that India will have options in post-US security scenario in Afghanistan, India will have to address new threats emerging from Kabul and Pakistan; Islamabad uses the former as its strategic depth. Things do not look propitious for New Delhi as it had not built any bridge to Taliban and Islamabad, despite the latest track-2 discreet negotiations, will seek to cause damage at the borders.
Afghanistan will remain highly vulnerable as America withdraws without putting any robust security alternatives in place. CIA Director William Burns, during a testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee underlined this point. He said the security threats to Kabul and beyond Afghanistan have not vanished and it would be difficult to gather intelligence without American troops on Afghan soil. Christine Fair, a scholar of South Asian political-military affairs said, ‘ISI wins, Afghans lose’. This is a telling comment on American’s decision to pull out its remaining troops from Afghanistan.
Reportedly, there are deep differences of opinion in the US about Biden’s decision to withdraw by September. He announced that he no longer wishes to continue America’s longest war and that the terrorist attack on twin towers in 2001necessitated sending troops to Afghanistan. Since, those conditions no longer exist; there was no need to continue to station our troops. His supporters would contend that it was time to focus on China and Russia instead of Afghanistan.
In the US’ military engagement with Afghanistan, it has spent $2 trillion, losing 2,300 of its troops. Also 157,000 Afghans died in the battles with Taliban militants and other mercenaries. America had deployed up to 100,000 troops, out of which 3,500 remain. Supporters of Biden line argue that US has done enough to secure Afghanistan and the peace process set in motion should materialise in the interest of all stakeholders. However, there is no discussion whatsoever about what would happen to India in security terms in post-bellum Afghanistan.
Critics of the Biden decision express deep worries. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham called it a disaster in the making. He warns that Biden may be paving the way for the repeat of 9/11 attack. Pakistan will have a field day in using its strategic depth in Afghanistan disrupting peace and security in the region. Beijing may use the situation to its advantage.
The wheel of history moved a full circle, when Pakistan, patronised by China and Russia, is using Taliban to fight the Americans through the government in Kabul. The US used Pakistan to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; propped up the Mujahideen with the help from Islamabad. The US made the mistake of militarily feeding Pakistan as its frontline state against its arch rival Soviet Union. Now Pakistan is in another camp, that of China, which has replaced former Soviet Union as a challenger to American supremacy. The other mistake US made is not to have punished Pakistan severely for supporting Taliban and harbouring terrorists.
Since America is not factoring the possible sufferance New Delhi would face, observers would suggest that India should get its ducks in a row. What are India’s options? One school of thought says New Delhi has spent about $1 billion on development projects in Afghanistan, and thereby has earned goodwill of Afghan government, public and the moderates among Taliban. New Delhi could harness that positivism for neutralising any anti-India action from Afghan soil.
Second, if it can manage to continue good relations with Iran, it can still influence the developments to a considerable extent in Afghanistan. Third, if New Delhi could keep Russia in good humour with its defense deals, the latter may continue to support New Delhi in the region. Apparently, Russia brings in New Delhi in its equation with China, be it BRICS or SCO, as counter-weight to Beijing. So New Delhi should have some room for maneuver.
One finds the foregoing forecast of India’s diplomacy in Afghanistan quite optimistic. It is in fact unrealistic strategic thinking. India has no more options than the QUAD plus the support of other friendly countries like Israel, France and Britain. Amongst these countries, the US is critical to New Delhi’s security and prosperity. But intriguingly, both the US and India are faltering in cementing a robust partnership. If the US has determined to build New Delhi as a countervailing power to Beijing in the region, it should fully nudge and support India. It should give space to New Delhi to have a political and security toehold in Afghanistan, which includes New Delhi building up friendly relations with Iran.
To sum up, against the backdrop described above, New Delhi should step into Afghanistan with military force. US should put up an Allied command with forces from other countries including India before withdrawing fully. It should wait for the government in Kabul to be strong enough to fight religious fundamentalists, and terrorists. New Delhi could be a major stakeholder in the new scenario. If US wishes to retain its world spremacy, it should treat Afghanistan as its litmus test, so should New Delhi to maintain its security and as a beacon of democracy in the region.
The writer is a professor of International Politics, JIMMC. INFA