Afghanistan is in the news again and as usual, is adding to strategic uncertainties. If analysts were flummoxed by former US President Trump’s policy to pull out all American soldiers from Afghanistan by 15 January this year, they are now equally bemused by current President Joe Biden’s plan to pull out by 11 September this year. Seen in the light of the peace negotiations and agreement in Doha, which promised a return of Taliban in some form or the other in the new scheme of things post US withdrawal, Biden’s decision looks ill-thought at best. At least, that’s what the US media is painting about the troops withdrawal. An op-ed by columnist Max Boot in The Washington Post has called President Biden’s decision to exit from Afghanistan as “very Trumpy”. Boot wrote, “President Biden is being lauded as anti-Trump. But in his first major foreign policy decision as president— the pullout from Afghanistan—he acted in a very Trumpy fashion, which is to say, he (Biden) made an impetuous, ideological decision without adequate planning or preparation. The more we know, the worse it looks.”
Another opinion piece wrote, “The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a dream, not a strategy.” Although the US government will continue to contribute aid to Afghanistan development, the official Afghan government is shaky and internally divided, and Taliban’s influence is significant in at least two-thirds of the country’s territory. Pakistan is in no mood to loosen up its policy of throwing India out of post-US presence Afghanistan and Russia and China are actively manoeuvring to increase strategic footprint in the country.”
It’s mission “unaccomplished” for the US, according to many diplomats and strategic experts and the withdrawal of troops on 11 September has not gone down well in the DC think-tank circuit. But in reality, the US can’t do much either. The US, since President Obama’s days, has been mulling withdrawal from Afghanistan, but seems like it has turned out to be a real foreign policy test for President Biden.
The US is in a precarious position tactically as it is finding no viable base around the war-torn country from where it is in a position to secure its interests in the region. Its negotiations with Pakistan to secure an airbase in the country are not going well, primarily because of Islamabad’s demand of a veto on which targets to be bombed. Central Asian states are not fully on board with providing a base either. Increasingly, American strategic experts are coming around to the conclusion that if carried out in the letter and spirit of the announcement, the pullout cannot be achieved without seriously impacting the stated US interests in the region.
If US’ disengagement from Afghan soil has triggered interest and intrigue among strategic experts, securing Indian interests in Afghanistan has become more complex and harder than ever. India, despite investing substantially in building goodwill in Afghanistan, had not invested enough in securing its interests in any post-US arrangement. Because of this, it is having to play a lot of catch-up which is visible in a flurry of activities by Indian diplomats to engage with non-Afghan government entities, most importantly, Taliban. Despite knowing that the Taliban, in totality, continues to be a Pakistani pawn, India chose to send representatives in Doha talks, and now, according to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, New Delhi is negotiating with certain factions of the Taliban directly. Whether these talks are being carried out after taking the Afghan government into confidence and whether these talks will better secure Indian interests, is, however, anybody’s guess, considering the precarious and shifting balance of power in the country and untrustworthiness of the Taliban. Time to see the “big picture” ahead with Taliban’s return threatening the revival of terrorism; Pakistan slipping into a regional security tinder box and China extending its sway and dominance over the two volatile countries, pumping huge investments, posing a threat to both Washington DC and New Delhi.
Aparna Pande, Director in Hudson Institute and an expert on South Asian affairs. says: “The big picture has not changed, that is something that is constant; the rise of China and the US-China peer rivalry that has been brewing for some years, but will define geo-politics for the next decade or more. The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has been in the making for over a decade now, ever since President Obama came to power. It is not new and every President (Obama, Trump, and now Biden) has wanted to militarily leave Afghanistan and what some call ‘forever’ wars.”
Pande says, “This is also because there are many who believe that the threat to the US today is not from terrorism or in the Middle East/Central Asia/ South Asia, but from China in the Indo Pacific and thus the preference to focus US resources on that part of the world. Will South Asia/Central Asia no longer be important? No, I don’t think so, but as often happens, American priorities are changing.”
On American priorities, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the South Asia Program in Woodrow Wilson Center, explains these in light of the US’ strategic and security urgency. Kugelman says: “The message of the withdrawal is clear, and it was stated very explicitly by President Biden when announcing the pullout: The US has bigger priorities elsewhere. Washington, at least in the near term, will continue to push for an Afghan peace process, and it will keep pursuing its counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan, albeit from far…But the Biden administration has made a decision that it has bigger strategic fish to fry in other parts of the world—in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia, including South Asia.”
Kugelman, however, adds, “The US will continue to play a diplomatic role regarding the Afghan peace process, and it will continue to pursue its counterterrorism interests, albeit from afar. But it’s unclear how long the US will continue to serve these roles. As for its responsibility, President Biden has made clear that he believes the US has achieved its major goals, and that now, it’s time to move on to other matters.”
Pande sees a direct role for India, but the question remains when and how. Pande says: “India has always had a role to play in South/Central Asia and the Middle East. The question that has been asked by many around the world is when will India play that role? For that India will need to boost its domestic capabilities (military, economic, technological), continue to remain engaged in Afghanistan not just with Kabul, but also with the other entities (including the Taliban), and work closely with the US and other partners.”
Kugelman agrees with Pande as many others in the DC circuit on India’s new role in Afghanistan. “India has long had a major role in Afghanistan, and it wants to maintain that role following the withdrawal, even amid the backdrop of increasing instability. This is in part why India reached out to the Taliban—to try to expand its array of contacts and networks in Afghanistan in order to ensure continued influence and access, and also to ensure the security and safety of its nationals and interests in Afghanistan.”
As the US media raises the heat on Biden’s troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pande explains the US administration’s compulsion citing domestic public opinion, which is “against American military involvement in Afghanistan”. Pande says: “The political leadership knows they have to militarily withdraw. This does not mean the US national security apparatus does not understand the current and future challenges and the possibility that if things get worse, they may again need to be involved. Many political leaders, military and intelligence officials, and policy wonks believe that the task is incomplete, but politics is dictating this decision.”
For Kugelman, the US withdrawal was the right thing to do. “Personally speaking, Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable even with US forces still on the ground. Witness all the violence, record-breaking fatalities, and takeovers of territory by the Taliban in recent years. Had US forces remained in the country, the Taliban would have re-declared war on the US troops, which would have further complicated their efforts to assist Afghan forces in reining in the Taliban…There was no good option for the US—leaving will certainly lead to more violence, but staying would have led to similar outcomes. It’s just a real ugly state of affairs. And sadly, it’s the long-suffering Afghan people who will pay the biggest price.”
Maybe the US will continue to contribute aid to the war-ravaged Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken had announced in April about $300 million civilian aid package. Boots and barrels may leave Afghanistan soil, but the US imprint will survive in development efforts. Perhaps, India can enter the stage now with a well-crafted strategic development agenda and work with the US to counter the China-Pakistan-Taliban threat to regional security and peace. As Pande says, “The US may be militarily withdrawing from the region, but the US will remain involved, both economically and on the security front.” Time for India and the US to play the “Great Game” in Afghanistan. But that will require New Delhi to play from the front and not as a backroom player.