India’s Role in Afghanistan
India must be prepared for the potential consequences of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that regional players like Russia, India and Pakistan should be more involved in stabilising the situation, and mocked India for not doing enough.
As a result, the U.S. war in Afghanistan, that began as revenge for the 9/11 attacks, evolved into a mission for ensuring democracy and prosperity in Afghanistan.
- Resurgence of the Taliban: The Taliban has re-emerged as a formidable fighting force and are going from strength to strength.
- As Mr. Trump now moves to cutting American presence to a few well-guarded military bases, India must consider the consequences closely.
- Casualties of Afghan National and Defence Security Forces in May-September 2018 were the “greatest it has ever been” compared to corresponding periods since 2001, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan “documented more civilian deaths in the first nine months of 2018 than they had during the same nine-month reporting period since 2014”.
Shift in policy
It is also time to recognise that the U.S.’s South Asia Strategy for Afghanistan (announced by Mr. Trump in August 2017) has been discarded.
Mr. Trump had defined the strategy with three features:
- that U.S. troops would remain involved in the country until “conditions” mandated their return;
- that the U.S. would put Pakistan on notice for its support to the Taliban and a political settlement with the Taliban would only follow “after an effective military effort”; and
- that the policy would hinge on further developing the strategic partnership with India
However, today, we can easily see that each element of the U.S.’s policy on the ground has shifted, if not been entirely reversed.
The appointment of special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September to lead talks with the Taliban shows that the U.S. is no longer waiting for military operations to take effect.
Mr. Trump wrote a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan thanking him for his efforts.
Mr. Khalilzad’s direct talks with the Taliban didn’t even have President Ashraf Ghani in the loop and the National Unity government (NUG) in Kabul was cut out. This reversed the previous U.S. position not to engage the Taliban until it engages the NUG.
Exit of Defence Secretary James Mattis is one more concern. Mr. Mattis had pushed most strenuously to keep India in the Afghan game by swinging a waiver for India on Chabahar and Iran oil purchases. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump will continue those waivers past May this year.
- The internal situation in Afghanistan is aggravated now by the uncertainty of the democratic process.
- Doubts have been casted against Government’s inability to conduct Parliamentary elections.
- Presidential elections have been postponed.
For India, these developments may appear discouraging. The removal or reduction of the U.S. presence from most theatres of action has created space for regional players: leaving Syria to Iran and its allies; Yemen to Saudi Arabia; Afghanistan to players like Russia, Pakistan and Iran; and Pakistan to China.
India’s best course with Afghanistan remains its own regional strategy, not becoming a part of any other country’s strategy. Close bilateral consultations has earned India immense popularity and goodwill.