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HindustanTimes Tue,21 Oct 2014

US withdrawal from Afghanistan: what it means for India

Krittivas Mukherjee, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, May 28, 2014
First Published: 16:44 IST(28/5/2014) | Last Updated: 07:37 IST(29/5/2014)

Now that US President Barack Obama has unveiled the drawdown plan for his troops in Afghanistan, India has clarity about three things: it has two years to firm up its Afghanistan strategy; that it will have to do so with less than a third of the present number of US soldiers there; and that it must brace for more attacks on its interests, both at home and in Afghanistan.

By the end of this year, the U.S. will reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 and further cut that number by half by end-2015, subject to the Kabul administration signing a bilateral security agreement with Washington.

Making the announcement, Obama said: "We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one."

Both the number of residual U.S. troops and Obama's comments hold significance for India and its future engagement in Afghanistan.

For one, the residual U.S. forces would perhaps be just enough to quarantine its own perceived security threats to the region but grossly inadequate to curb a Taliban resurgence much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.

Watch video: Obama says US finishing Afghan job

Second, Obama's remarks border on reckless abandon, focussed solely on exiting a war (whose consequences spill beyond the borders of Afghanistan) to secure his legacy as the only American president to extricate his country from two messy military misadventures.

So, India must prepare to deal with the consequences. It has a clear two year window to put in place its Afghan plan and deal with an emboldened Islamist militant onslaught.

But make no mistake that an increase in attacks on Indian interests may not necessarily be at the behest of Pakistan, either its civilian government or the military.

There are several reasons for this. First, Pakistan is much weaker than it was a decade ago, mired in economic mismanagement and struggling to curb rising militancy within its borders. Even a section of its army appears to have come to terms with the limitation of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy, having virtually lost control over groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP).

Second, with the US withdrawing from Afghanistan, it is more likely to leverage any future financial assistance to Pakistan, thereby retaining a certain degree of influence over the Great Game on the Indian subcontinent.

Third, going by the initial moves on both sides, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi appear to be seeking a modicum of stability in bilateral ties, particularly through an economic engagement.

That said, recalcitrant non state actors remain a threat to India and the U.S. withdrawal may further embolden them. Some of them, such as Hafiz Saeed, the brain behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks whose venomous harangue against India refuses to subside, remain as strategic assets for the Pakistani security establishment.

Post-2014, Pakistan's military could turn on the tap of terror if it chooses to. This time, though, there are some restraints. India must leverage those.


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