United States President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw a third of the 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan over the next 18 months has been somewhat surprising in the intensity and pace of the planned drawdown. In making such a definitive announcement, Obama has sought to answer those who argued that he would execute only a token withdrawal (or reshuffle) of soldiers in time for his November 2012 re-election attempt, and that he would renew the war at some point later.
Obviously this is not the case. By pulling back so many soldiers before his first term ends and by linking that action to concentrating energies on "nation building at home", Obama has narrowed options for himself or his successor. Whatever happens in the next US election - and whoever becomes president, whether Obama or a Republican challenger - it will be impossible to reverse the trend. For all practical purposes the Afghan war, at least insofar as it is seen as a conventional military conflict, with on-ground combat, area domination and peacekeeping, is over.
In Washington DC, both fiscal and political logic seem to support Obama. So if a US troop presence in Afghanistan is to be supplemented or substituted, and if the global system's commitment to a longer war against the Taliban is to be demonstrated, who is going to do it? The Europeans are not interested. Russia will not go back to the Afghan theatre in a hurry. With the superpower having been thwarted, other regional powers with big, professional armies - China, India, Turkey - will be wary.
A severe and quick reduction in American troop presence will not result in a zero-sum game. It will deplete political capital all-round. There will be many losers. South and Central Asia will need to adjust to a new normal, one markedly different from anything since October 2001, when the America-backed Northern Alliance captured Kabul.
The US military presence in Afghanistan has provided the umbrella for Indian social and economic programmes. In the case of China, the single biggest investor in Afghanistan and hungry for its resources, the upshot is even more of a concern. Major facilities like the Aynak copper mine are exploited by Chinese industry but actually protected by forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
So where does the nasty and brutish future lie? There are three possible implications to the Obama decision. None of them is a given. Nevertheless, can there be gains for India even within the framework of this so-called worst-case scenario?
First, the language of the past week has been telling. Analysts of the Obama announcement have spoken of the need to keep using Afghanistan as the base for incursions into Pakistan. In 2001, the US needed Pakistan to help it fight its enemies in Afghanistan, to kill key al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban commanders and make its homeland safer. Today, the situation has been reversed.
This cannot please Islamabad. Though there will be those within the American system who will recommend it, an outsourcing of the Afghan mess to the generals in Rawalpindi and their chosen Taliban factions is unlikely. The continued ambivalence of the Pakistanis on the issue of "good" and "bad" jihadists and the increased attacks on Pakistani government targets have made it clear no return to the mid-1990s is possible.
In early 2010 - after the London conference on Afghanistan for instance - when there was talk of American withdrawal, Pakistan's generals were exultant. Today, they are muted. Things may still go their way, but that is no more a certainty.
Second, the US has sent mixed signals. It is pulling back troops but has also made serious investments in air bases in Afghanistan. This would suggest that wide-spectrum counter-insurgency is likely to be replaced by a narrow-focused counter-terrorism mechanism. The US military would probably maintain a diminished presence in massive camps and bases - islands in an otherwise turbulent Afghanistan - and use these for drone assaults and short forays into Pakistan. Among others, vice-president Joe Biden has spoken earlier on the feasibility of such a strategy.
Both of these potential implications suit India. The third one, however, could see medium-term differences between Washington DC and New Delhi. India would like an informal division of Afghanistan. It would want the security of the northern areas, where it could persist with building capacities of the Afghan army and prop up new political players among the ethnic minorities, in conjunction with Iran and other neighbours.
In southern Afghanistan, on the other hand, Pashtun domination and tribal armies could intensify Islamism. However, in the absence of an overt American presence, these energies could also be channeled towards the creation of a Pashtun territory that straddles the Durand Line. This cross-border Pashtunistan, largely autonomous of Islamabad, is already a reality. Can it be formalised or at least encouraged?
The US would not be interested. It would want its legacy in Afghanistan to be an at least notionally united nation. Neither would it welcome another destabilising factor in the region. For India, however, this has an obvious strategic appeal. Given the Pakistan army's "strategic depth" obsession, it would be a compelling pre-emptive option. How soon before South Block embraces it?
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.