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Wait-and-watch policy may prove too costly

The Taliban’s return to power is a body blow to Indian interests in Afghanistan and a major diplomatic set back. India was too late in reaching out to Taliban to secure its interests.

SITARAM SHARMA | NEW DELHI |

After fighting the ‘longest war’ in its history the United States is witnessing a complete failure in Afghanistan, a country also known as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’. Surprisingly it was as recently as in July that US President Joe Biden denied a Taliban takeover was ‘inevitable’ saying its 75,000 fighters were no match for the 300,000 Afghan Security Forces. Neither Presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump believed the Afghanistan war was worth fighting for. Finally, President Biden stood before the American people and said, “It has been 20 years and we have not won. Let us quit.” Beginning with President Obama, the US signaled its desire to extricate itself from Afghanistan – and the Afghans noticed. The Taliban insurgency could not be crushed by a military ‘surge’ explicitly designed to buy breathing space for disengagement. After years of knowing that two American Presidents had worked to wash their hands of them, should we be surprised that Afghan morale cracked when a third demonstrated he meant it. In contrast the Soviets withdrew after a decade in 1989, in excellent order. Their Afghan clients lasted another three years. The Soviets were deeply unpopular but not driven out. The American failure in Afghanistan was primarily political. When Presidents Trump and Biden decided to talk directly to the Taliban about US withdrawal, it further undermined the Afghan government and boosted Taliban morale. The US eventually left Afghanistan in the hands of the same extremists it went in to fight. It was a war which was never “Afghan-owned” or “Afghan-led”; it is therefore not surprising that Afghan soldiers gave up so readily. Tragically, the Afghan people will bear the consequences alone. Afghanistan was undermined by President Bush’s naïve optimism. It was destroyed by President Baiden’s naïve pessimism. America’s allies, including India were hardly consulted, and were humiliated. The US was slow in building an army and police force to defend Afghanistan. It lately adopted a narrow strategy with a single-minded focus on withdrawal, thus losing its leverage in negotiations with Taliban. Policy makers in Washington are grappling with the stark readily of losing Afghanistan, their allies in Europe are no less flummoxed over what happens next. Will they be as ready to support future American foreign policy initiatives? President Biden has made it clear what he considers to be primary US national interest; stopping terrorist attacks on his country, explaining that the US role in Afghanistan had strayed from that essential objective at great cost. In this context it is to be seen how the US conducts itself around the world. Ultimately the US should hold itself accountable for its failures. Europeans are angry with the United States; they were left in the dark while the consequences are owned together. The one big takeaway for the Biden administration should be that the honeymoon with Europe is over. Europeans will need more than well-crafted words to be convinced about their strategic relationship with NATO. However, it is also a wake-up call to the Europeans that the more they build their own capabilities, the more the US will be inclined to stick with its allies. The US policy on Afghanistan was doomed to fail from the beginning. There was not ever a chance for a successful policy in Afghanistan without a changed policy towards Pakistan, a regional partner in the war on terrorism for the last twenty years. Pakistan is complex territory. There is more than one Pakistan and more than one Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan relies on the US for significant foreign aid while also aligning itself with China. It is a nuclear-armed state, a sponsor of terror that presents itself as the primary partner in regional security matters, and also a partner to the US in the war on terror. It is inside Pakistan that Osama Bin Laden sought and found safe haven with the Taliban finding what was in effect, a cryo-chamber for the same war. US policy towards Pakistan has not effectively addressed these serious contradictions and Afghanistan is proof that the policy has not protected US or allied security interests. India has suffered majorly due to this dual policy of US towards Pakistan. The downfall of the Kabul government even before the full US military withdrawal has raised concerns in many other countries, from Europe to East Asia, about America’s willingness to defend them. After spending some two trillion dollars and sacrificing more than 2,000 troops America’s war is finally over. But the question remains: Did it achieve its objective of avenging the 9/11 terror attacks? The changes over the past weeks have been dramatic. Taliban militants – who still have close ties to al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups – now control Afghanistan. The withdrawal has left the country without a government, or political system, its population without protection, as well as an ingrained economic and humanitarian crisis. There is no guarantee that Afghanistan will not again become a safe haven for terrorists. History confounds expectations, especially those made in the immediate aftermath of major events. Much depends on how the US handle the immediate aftermath of its withdrawal. Much also depends on what lessons the US learns from Afghanistan. The post-Afghanistan period starts now. American people have a right to ask why the policy in Afghanistan failed so catastrophically. And they deserve honest answers. What is next for Afghanistan? What is next for the counter-terrorism mission? Now comes the race against the terrorists. The war is not over. This is what the next phase looks like. From China to Turkey there is a race to fill the political void left after the US disengagement. Indian assets and Indian interests in Afghanistan are at stake. With Taliban taking over Kabul, India is deprived of any diplomatic influence in the region. The political future of Afghanistan will be of considerable significance to several nations with competing sets of interests as well as to Pan-Asian relations a whole. Regional forces are jockeying to carve out influence in Afghanistan setting the stage for a new geo-political tussle. Pakistan seeks a weak Kabul government dominated by a pliant, supportive Taliban, so that it can maintain strategic depth against India, guarantee safe haven for Islamist proxies that it supports, prevent Delhi from projecting power in South Asia and obstruct India’s ability to support separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The Taliban’s return to power is a body blow to Indian interests in Afghanistan and a major diplomatic set back. India was too late in reaching out to Taliban to secure its interests. India sees the Taliban as a proxy of its arch-rival Pakistan given its proximity to the ISI and had maintained close ties with the Northern Alliance. While Russia is a close historical partner for India, Moscow has recently looked to Pakistan to help safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, reducing the prospects for closer collaborations with India. That leaves Iran as India’s most important ally in Afghanistan. India’s moving towards US as its strategic partner has somehow distanced Moscow from New Delhi. India’s worst fear is that Afghanistan will become a haven for militants from Pakistan. India fears China’s growing influence in Afghanistan. India has made major investments in Central Asia, of $8 billion. But China may be able to invest even more in Afghanistan. China is building a giant global infrastructure network called the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). India is not a part of it. But Pakistan is, and Afghanistan soon could be. While not treaty allies, the US and India have a close strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific, conducting joint naval drills with Australia and Japan. But the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may leave India in a difficult situation. The credibility of the US is completely down not only in Afghanistan but in the region as a whole and India is no exception. The US can leave but in the end, India will have to pick up the pieces, considering its long-term interests. Like other neighbours, India is scrambling to figure out how to adjust to shifting geo-political challenges. Although wary of the new regime, Delhi is keen to protect its considerable investments built up over the years. Afghanistan is vital to India’s strategic interests in the region. India’s options are limited. It can disengage completely or engage the Taliban to ensure the protection of its investment and interests. What is of greater concern is how the Pakistan- China dynamic will play out. What will be the Russian role? Will Moscow stand by India despite Delhi’s recent pro-US tilt? A pragmatic policy for India will be to explore ways of engaging Taliban to preserve gains. The new influencers like China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran will be happy to see American influence reduce further. Pakistan could now have more ungoverned spaces to carry out attacks against India. It remains to be seen how the world will accept this new reality. In the coming months India needs to carefully assess its security needs especially the threat of growing radicalization and space for pan-Islamic terror groups in the neighbourhood. Meanwhile India should take up a strong public position on the kind of inclusive government it expects, pending which it would not recognize the regime. As Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was wrapping up his talks with senior US officials in Washington on the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan rushed its ISI Chief General Faiz Hameed to Kabul to ensure the inclusion of people it had backed for decades in the new Taliban government. The contrasting pictures summed up the altered great power game. While India is trying to explore how to realign its Afghan policy and recover the ground it laid with the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani by investing $3 billion in assistance over the last two decades, Pakistan is seeking to influence the composition of a new dispensation. India’s present strategy of “wait-and-watch” may prove to be too costly leaving it with no friends in the region.