US Withdrawal from Afghanistan
With the U.S. prepared to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan to about 2,500 by January 2021, Afghanistan is bracing for an uncertain future.
• The modern boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of a rivalry between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia. Modern Afghanistan became a pawn in struggles over political ideology and commercial influence.
• In the last quarter of the 20th century, Afghanistan suffered the ruinous effects of civil war greatly exacerbated by a military invasion and occupation by the Soviet Union (1979–89).
• In subsequent armed struggles, a surviving Afghan communist regime held out against Islamic insurgents (1989–92), and, following a brief rule by mujahideen groups, an austere movement of religious students—the Taliban—rose up against the country’s governing parties and warlords and established a theocratic regime (1996–2001) that soon fell under the influence of a group of well-funded Islamists led by an exiled Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden.
• The Taliban, who were ousted from power in 2001 after the U.S. invasion and have since been fighting both foreign troops and the Afghan government in Kabul, now control more than half of the country and contest the whole of it.
Impact on India
An agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, 2020, marks a milestone in America’s longest ever war. Accordingly, the majority of U.S. troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2021.
In turn, and if this agreement is successfully implemented, sections of the Taliban could be expected to play a larger role in Afghan politics. This is hardly desirable for a country like India.
The first risk has to do with terrorism. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban will prevent terrorist outfits from operating on Afghan soil, there is little clarity on how the agreement will be verified and enforced.
The second risk has to do with the growing influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which shares an undeniable link with the Taliban, especially the Haqqani group.
The third risk to India’s long-term interests in Afghanistan has to do with the increasing political instability in Kabul.
With this stability at risk, India needs to urgently reposition its priorities.
Way Forward for India
Broader Diplomatic Engagement: India should consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to Afghan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that Indian views are expressed at every meeting, broaden engagement with the Afghan government and other political actors, and reach out to certain Taliban representatives.
Continued Training and Investments: India should provide more military training to Afghan security forces and invest in longer-term capacity-building programs. It should actively support and invest in the National Directorate of Security (for example, by providing training and sharing intelligence). Finally, given the continued levels of violence and the impact of the coronavirus on the Afghan economy, India should expand its development assistance.
Working with and Through Others: India should look to broaden its engagements with Iran and Russia, explore opportunities for cooperation (as limited as they might be) with China, and find common ground with the United States on Afghanistan’s future. This does not mean forcing competing interests to align; it means investing in a wider diplomatic initiative with the view to carve out areas of convergence.
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