US pull-out from Afghanistan: It’s advantage Taliban
Given its geographical location on the strategic crossroads to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and West Asia, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a vital national interest for India.Updated: Feb 08, 2019 07:44 IST
President Donald Trump declared victory against the ISIS in December 2018 and decided to withdraw all US forces from Syria. He also announced that the US would withdraw half the troops from Afghanistan in about two months. Both decisions contravene carefully formulated strategies to defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. In Afghanistan, in particular, Trump has unwittingly handed over the initiative to the Taliban.
After vacillating for over six months, the US President announced his administration’s policy for the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan in August 2017 as part of his strategy for South Asia. Contrary to his campaign promise to pull out, he pledged continuing US support for diplomatic, military and financial commitment to peace and stability and political reconciliation.
In a major departure from the policies of the Obama administration, Trump invited India to help the US to work towards conflict resolution in Afghanistan. As was widely anticipated, Trump put Pakistan on notice for encouraging terrorist organisations to destabilise neighbouring countries and warned the country that “it has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists”. But despite immense American pressure, Pakistan’s ISI has continued to support several factions of the Afghan Taliban and provide them safe havens.
The present situation in Afghanistan can be described as a strategic stalemate. The Afghan National Army (ANA), supported by the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is not losing but the resurgent Taliban now controls about one-third of the country. While the ANA controls most of the large towns, the writ of the Taliban runs in huge areas of the countryside. One estimate suggests the direct war-related casualties number 111,000 dead and 116,000 wounded in the last two decades.
The Taliban continues to haunt government forces. Sporadic strikes by terrorists belonging to ISIS Khorasan — the local branch of the ultra-extremist Islamic State — to stoke sectarian conflict by attacking the Shias continue unabated. Governance is weak, crime is rampant and corruption and tax evasion are widespread. The presidential election that was scheduled for April 2019 has been postponed to July 2019.
Till a week back, efforts to find a negotiated end to the conflict had not made much headway. Though there is general agreement that reconciliation negotiations should be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”, the Taliban consistently refused to meet representatives of the Afghan government.
A parallel Russian initiative, called the Moscow format, succeeded in bringing together the Taliban and Afghan representatives but the Afghans were from the High Peace Council, a “national but non-government institution”.
The reconciliation talks between the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives of the Taliban did not see any forward movement because the Taliban negotiators were stalling for time. The withdrawal of troops ordered by President Trump further emboldened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government. One of the Taliban leaders gloated that it has “defeated the world’s lone super power”. The group demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces without itself making any concessions and the Trump administration, eager to pull out, has apparently conceded.
Given its geographical location on the strategic crossroads to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and West Asia, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a vital national interest for India. India has not been invited to join ISAF; nor is there any support for military intervention in India’s policy community. However, after being kept away from the high table by the George W Bush and Obama administrations in deference to Pakistan’s sensibilities, India is now being urged by the Trump administration to do more to help resolve the conflict.
India has invested over $3 billion in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, donated four Mi-25 attack helicopters, provided training to Afghan military personnel, civilian pilots and administrators and has been regularly providing humanitarian aid and medical supplies. The Indian embassy in Kabul and Indian consulates as well as road construction protection parties of ITBP have been attacked by the Taliban and have suffered a large number of casualties.
Till very recently, the Indian position for conflict resolution was that there should be no negotiations with the Taliban as it is a terrorist organisation. Yet, India sent two former diplomats as unofficial observers to the Moscow conference with the Taliban. India appears to have now accepted that negotiations for conflict resolution cannot be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned without talking to the Taliban leadership.
With the withdrawal of US-led ISAF likely to begin soon, the clichéd Taliban taunt, “You have the watches, but we have the time,” has begun to ring true. The worst case scenario for India would be the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. If that happens, Pakistan’s ISI would be sure to divert many of the hard core Taliban fighters — of the factions over which it has control — to Kashmir. India’s national interest lies in formulating a comprehensive strategy, jointly with the Afghan government, that ensures that a Taliban takeover can be prevented.
Gurmeet Kanwal is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New DelhiThe views expressed are personal
First Published: Feb 08, 2019 07:43 IST