In 2014, America was forced to shut down its military base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, wiping out its only physical footprint in Central Asia. Now US-NATO troops are exiting Afghanistan – only American presence in South Asia. Is it a forced exit smoothened by a sham US-Taliban peace deal? US President Joe Biden says that the original objective of preventing Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the US has been accomplished. If that be so, why delay the withdrawal to September 11? It obviously is to portray a modicum of defiance in face the rising Taliban.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken naturally gave similar statements in solidarity with what Biden said. This is despite the fact that a United Nations report of last year confirmed that the Taliban and Al Qaeda remained closely linked through the Haqqani network and were regularly consulting each other. Current ground indications also confirm there is no change from that – Taliban and Al Qaeda remain entwined. But now Biden addressing a joint session of US lawmakers on April 28, 2021 has said that the terrorist threat had “evolved way beyond Afghanistan”- some logic! He also said that the most lethal terrorist threat to America came from “white supremacists”, rather than “Islamic extremists”.
All this should make Taliban ideal candidates for collaborating with the CIA in America’s future counter-terrorist operations. After all the US did help create Al Qaeda, later fought them and still later used them in Iraq-Syria and Yemen. It is amusing to see how narratives are undergoing change. US officials had been saying periodically past year plus that the Taliban have not kept their part of the peace deal. But now the tune has reversed with some officials telling media that the Taliban have indeed kept their side of the bargain by protecting western military bases from being attacked by other terrorist groups although Taliban attacks against Afghans went up exponentially.
According to former White House adviser Richard Clarke there is “high probability” that President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 will result in the collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover of that country by the Taliban. He said, “There’s a high probability that government (of Afghanistan) will fall and we’ll have perhaps the scene that we had when the government in Saigon fell and there was that famous iconic image of the helicopter on the top of the roof of the US Embassy taking off with the last people in it. That could happen.” Clarke could have substituted ‘high probability’ with ‘inevitable’.
The US-NATO withdrawal has already begun with bases being handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). But the latter are woefully short of firepower, artillery and air and once US troops withdraw, their combat potential to defend these bases against Taliban attacks will come under severe strain – their ability to hold on questionable. In addition, to think that the fallout of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will not affect Afghanistan’s extended neighbourhood in South Asia (India in particular), Central Asia and Eurasia would be outright stupid.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a dialogue on April 19 and agreed that the two nations will coordinate efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan. According to US State Department spokesman Ned Price who gave details of their conversation, Blinken spoke to Jaishankar “to reaffirm the importance of the US-India relationship and cooperation on regional security issues.”
But these are all assurances in semantics. If the US has not been able to bring stability in Afghanistan past 20 years, what can it expect now after exiting? Moreover, how do we expect the US to be bothered about India’s security concerns when it has been pretty comfortable with Chinese presence in Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar? PLA presence in Myanmar is inevitable once the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor gets going – just like in Pakistan.
For years, countries of Central Asia have been talking of the need for a multinational force on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to stop the terrorism flowing from Pakistan into Afghanistan and beyond. But that has not happened. The possibility of a multinational force under the UN in Afghanistan doesn’t exist either. Were this possible, the US would have engineered it years before enabling exit of its troops.
On the other hand, Turkey and Pakistan have been holding a dialogue with the Afghan government, which may be to have a Turkey-Pakistan force in Afghanistan under pretext of training China which eyes the $1-3 trillion mineral and oil reserves of Afghanistan would favour such a set up with PLA joining in to train and ‘strengthen’ the ANSF. It is natural that Taliban will want some of its cadres to be absorbed into the ANSF especially since many Talban would have already served in the ANSF before joining Taliban after deserting or after completion of their 5-year tenure.
India has strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan and has been contributing in the development of Afghanistan. Since 2001, India has pledged and implemented development and reconstruction projects worth more than $3 billion in that country. Some of the large infrastructure projects completed include construction of a 218-km road between Delaram and Zaranj (on the Iranian border), which provides an alternative connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran; India–Afghanistan friendship dam (also known as the Salma dam); and the Afghan Parliament building which was inaugurated in 2015, which is a symbol of Afghan democracy.
In November 2020, India signed an agreement with Afghanistan for construction of the Shahtoot Dam costing approximately $250 million, which will provide safe drinking water to two million residents of Kabul city. In addition India will undertake more than 100 projects worth $80 million in Afghanistan.
No matter what is said or portrayed outwardly, China and Pakistan should be expected to work towards limiting India’s role in Afghanistan. India may play along with these false pretenses but rather than relying only on American goodwill would do well to pursue channels simultaneously with Iran, Russia, CAR countries, Taliban and its specific factions, as also the erstwhile Northern Alliance – some of which may already be happening.
Taliban are not for democracy but they would not reject development outright especially with some of the Taliban controlled areas underdeveloped. China no doubt will offer much bigger investments including its Belt and Road Initiative extending from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Central Asia through Afghanistan. But India needs to do everything possible to protect its strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan to the extent possible no matter what the future of Afghanistan is post exit of US troops.
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About the Author
Lt. Gen Katoch is renowned special forces officer, with an unparalleled service record. He has been a notable member of the Victory India campaign, and is a prolific writer with his articles published in leading Defence magazines like FORCE, Indian Defence Review, The Week & Fauji India among many others. He is also the author of Special Operations Cases Studies: Lessons for India and India's Special Forces: History and Future of India's Special Forces)
(This article was first published in the 'Indian Defence Review' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')