US decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan by September puts India on the backfoot

In the fast changing scenario in Afghanistan, India has to reformulate its Afghan policy in the next five months when the US will complete its US troop withdrawal from the country

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden

Barun Das Gupta

US president Joe Biden has announced that his country’s full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be completed by September 11 this year, bringing to an end a 20-year long war which has cost the American taxpayer $2 trillion and taken a toll of 2,312 US soldiers. What will this mean for India?

It is common knowledge that without US troop support, the Government of Ashraf Ghani cannot hold out against the Taliban for long. During the last year, the Taliban launched several attacks against government troops, bringing more and more territory under its control. Once the remaining 2300 US troops leave, the Taliban will overrun the whole of the country with lightning speed. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will also give Pakistan the strategic depth against India that it desperately needs.

A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will have the Pakistan military and the ISI behind it. Till 2010, India had invested $10.8 billion in Afghanistan, mainly for building social infrastructure. Last year (2020), New Delhi announced it was giving another $80 million to the Kabul government for a hundred different projects. There is not a modicum of doubt that one of the first priorities of a Pakistan-backed Taliban will be to drive out India from Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel. If the Taliban eventually gangs up with the Islamic State and other militant Islamic groups, it will be a threat to peace in Asia.

The strength of the Afghan army is 1,80,000. The estimated strength of the Taliban army is around, 10,000. Of them, about 3000 are believed to be ”highly motivated”. The asymmetry between the government forces and the Taliban is apparent.

But despite the asymmetry, the Taliban is at an advantage. The Afghan army has been trained for positional warfare. But the Taliban carries out guerrilla type attacks. The Kabul Government’s presence is felt mostly in the urban centres. The Talibans dominate the countryside. They rule by fear. They explode IEDs, killing innocent people. They ambush army convoys. They target and kill intellectuals, academicians and other prominent members of the society. Their message is clear: the elected government headed by Ghani cannot protect you, we can if you accept our dominance. The fear induced by the Taliban is disproportionate to their actual armed strength.

The US Government had been holding secret parleys with the Taliban at various places in different countries for a long time, to come to an understanding with the Islamist organization so that when the US withdraws fully from Afghanistan, there is no breakdown of law and order. To cut a long story short, two peace deals were signed, the first on November 22, 2016 and the second on February 29, 2020

President Ashraf Ghani was not happy with the secret peace talks the US was carrying on with the Taliban behind his back. He was opposed to any “hasty” peace in his country brought about by a deal between the US and the Taliban. But Washington had made up its mind to wash its hands clean of Afghanistan and clear out of the country as soon as possible. The fate of Ghani and his government is not important to the US.

Afghanistan is the gateway to the Central Asian Republics which were formerly part of the now dissolved Soviet Union. An energy-hungry China will welcome a friendly government in Kabul as it will facilitate its access to the Central Asian countries which are rich in mineral resources, including oil and gas. India had, at one time, hoped to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (the TAPI project). The cost of the project was estimated at $10 billion. Due to Pakistan’s implacable hostility to India, the project has been all but abandoned.

But what will be of the highest concern for India is the new geo-strategic challenge that India will now face in the region. India’s defence calculus has to be re-worked. The security of life of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and his colleagues will be another concern for India. The US will leave them to fend for themselves as best as they can.

But a Talibani Government in Kabul is the last thing that India should want. Projects built by India in Afghanistan have often been the targets of attack by the Haqqani group. Now these will be more open to attacks. The Haqqani network is a branch of the Taliban and is led by the father and son duo of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani. The link of the ISI with the Haqqani network is well known and even former Pak diplomats have confirmed it.

In the fast changing scenario in Afghanistan, India has to reformulate its Afghan policy in the next five months when the US will complete its US troop withdrawal from the country. India has to protect its investments in Afghanistan and ensure that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan does not become a threat to India and disturb regional stability. The US no longer patronizes Pakistan, but China does. This has to be factored in, in any future policy making by India relating to Afghanistan because Pakistan is likely to play an important role in Afghanistan after the US leaves.

(IPA Service. Views are personal)

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