July 18, 2021

Afghanistan: India in an Unenviable Position

THE situation on the ground in Afghanistan is changing fast. With the US troop withdrawal more or less complete, the last few weeks have seen the Taliban advancing all across the country.  The Taliban have claimed that 85 per cent of the territory is now under their control. But whether this is actually the case, the fact remains that the speed of the Taliban advance, particularly in the northern region, has taken everyone by surprise.

The US withdrawal, after a twenty year war in Afghanistan, marks a humiliating defeat.  After the September 20O1 terrorist attack in the United States, President Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to launch the “war against terror”.  The wheel had come full circle. The US had financed and armed the mujahideen to take on the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Among those who joined the jihad were elements like Osama bin Laden. A full decade later, the US was acting against the Taliban who were the progeny of the mujahideen. After dislodging the Taliban from power, the US,  as it is its wont, installed a pliant regime giving it a “democratic veneer”.

Two decades of aerial war and special forces operations could not subdue the Taliban. After spending over two trillion dollars and sacrificing the lives of 2,312 soldiers, for the past few years, successive US administrations have been cutting back on its occupation and troop deployment.  Biden took the final step of announcing the withdrawal of all US-NATO troops by September.  The 20 year war has cost the lives of 47,600 civilians, of which 40 per cent were caused by US aerial bombing.

The Trump administration had initiated talks with the Taliban in Doha and a peace agreement was announced. But the talks between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives for an interim transitional plan stalled. The manner in which the Americans have abandoned Afghanistan is typical of the way they have left countries they have occupied – in ruins as it happened in Iraq. 

The Afghan National Army, built up and trained by the US, is being outmatched and sections of the soldiers are either surrendering or fleeing their posts.  Even the US intelligence had estimated that the Taliban would take over the entire country within six months of the American withdrawal.  But a Taliban takeover will not necessarily result in stability.  There are militias connected with influential ethnic warlords and US-sponsored and trained militias in the field creating the conditions for a civil war. This will be the worst scenario for the people who will continue to suffer from the violence and conflict which has already been going on for four decades. 

The only way to avoid such a dire outcome is to form an interim government with Taliban participation based on an understanding with all parties concerned.  A last effort is on at Doha between the Taliban and Afghan government and other representatives to arrive at some such agreement. 

India has been out of all these efforts having burnt its bridges with Taliban long before. The Vajpayee government in 2001 had been prompt to offer military logistical support for the US attack on Afghanistan but the Americans chose to operate through Pakistan as a frontline State – much to the disappointment of the BJP-led government then.  Since then, India has in conjunction with the United States sought to assist the Afghan government with billions of dollars of aid for various projects and infrastructure building across the country.

Much to the chagrin of the Modi government, the United States decided to initiate talks with the Taliban and eventually get out without any formalities. The Modi government, faced with an unenviable situation, sought to establish contacts with Taliban in Doha.  Foreign minister, S Jaishankar, made trips to Tehran and Moscow to consult with the two governments who have been interlocutors with the Taliban.  However, the remarks Jaishankar made at the press conference in Moscow casting doubts about the “legitimacy” of a Taliban takeover by force shows how out of step India is with the emerging realities. 

With the Americans departing from the scene, the focus has shifted to the regional powers who have a direct stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) consists of six countries who are neighbours of Afghanistan.  Russia, China, India and Pakistan are members along with the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  Afghanistan and Iran have the status of observers.

A meeting of the foreign ministers of SCO countries is underway in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on July 13-14 with the focus on Afghanistan. A SCO contact group on Afghanistan is also to meet. Jaishankar, who is  attending the meeting, will hopefully join the collective efforts of the SCO for a regional-backed political settlement. 

As far as Pakistan is concerned, though a traditional supporter of the Taliban, it is also faced with an unpredictable situation which may affect its interests and security.  The Pakistani National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the Pakistani parliament on July 9 and spelt out Pakistan’s “broad policy framework” on Afghanistan: first, efforts are being made to facilitate a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and Kabul government; second, to take steps to minimise the spill-over of instability and influx of refugees into Pakistan. He also said that the ground situation is overtaking everything else and the first option does not look promising.

Given this approach, India should have no hesitation in being part of any regional collective effort, which includes Pakistan, like the SCO.

The Taliban have made it clear that it will set-up an Islamic Emirate that will not have any “democratic structure”, according to Pakistani sources.  The main concern is how the Taliban regime would treat women and girl children.  A spokesman of the Taliban has stated that they will allow education of women upto the highest level, something which can be believed only when it happens. The least that any regional collective effort can ensure would be to protect the rights of women who have been the worst sufferers under the past Taliban regime. 

The entire Afghan policy, from 2001 onwards, under successive Indian governments, has been to support American aggression and help in the process of “nation-building” by spending billions of dollars in infrastructure and development projects.  The precipitate withdrawal  by the Americans without caring for the consequences should compel the Modi government and the foreign policy establishment to relook its one-sided pro-US foreign policy and the burgeoning strategic alliance with the United States, which has now found shape in the Quad.  Just as the Afghan policy, riding shotgun for the US enterprise against China, is only going to isolate India and further derail its strategic autonomy. 

(July 14, 2021)