Jaishankar reiterates unease over US pullout from Afghanistan
Ahead of the most expansive in-person engagement yet by an Indian Cabinet member with top Biden administration officials, external affairs minister S Jaishankar on Wednesday reiterated deep Indian unease with stated US plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan for “political expediency”.
The gains of the last 20 years in Afghanistan, during which an entire generation of Afghans grew up not knowing what the previous 20 years were like, is “something worth protecting, defending, nurturing” and they should not be “lightly sacrificed at the expediency of politics of the day”, Jaishankar said in a virtual conversation with former US National Security Adviser HR McMaster, who was one of the Trump administration’s most ardent advocates of stronger ties with India. He is now with the Hoover Institution, an arm of Stanford University.
“I think people do worry of what would happen if things go badly,” Jaishankar added from New York, citing conversations he has had with counterparts around the world, especially in Europe, about the future of Afghanistan post US withdrawal, without settling the key issue of who will be in charge. He left shortly for Washington DC for the second leg of his five-day visit to the United States.
President Joe Biden has announced that all US troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in search of the perpetrators, al Qaeda leaders and operatives sheltering there under the protection of the Taliban regime.
India has a place at the table in America’s post-pullout plan, as detailed in the leaked letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani. But New Delhi, irrespective of the party in power, has long advocated some US military presence in Afghanistan, no matter how small, for a scarecrow deterrent impact on terrorism in not only Afghanistan but all of South Asia, especially in Pakistan.
Biden’s Afghanistan policy, which is a continuation of President Donald Trump’s policy moored in ending “endless wars”, is the only major issue muddying bilateral relations at this time. It was trade and related issues — such as the termination of special tariff concessions for Indian imports under a US programme called Generalized System of Preferences — during the Trump administration and trade and climate change under President Barack Obama.
Defying Trump-supporting Indian skeptics and hawks, Biden has accorded top billing to the relationship with India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders he called after moving into the White House; hosted the first summit of the leaders of the Quad, which includes India; dispatched one of his senior Cabinet members Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to New Delhi as part of first foreign visits by his top officials; invited Modi to a climate summit; backed a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily waive patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines; and sent $100 million worth of oxygen supplies, PPEs and therapeutics to help India deal with a deadly second wave of Covid-19 cases.
And now, Biden is expected to name a close political ally as ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, currently mayor of Los Angeles.
Jaishankar arrived in Washington DC Wednesday with an itinerary packed with meetings over the next two days. He is scheduled to meet Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai — all Cabinet members — and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. And possibly — chances are remote to none — President Biden.
The minister is also meeting members of top business bodies US-India Business Council (an arm of the US chamber of commerce, one of the most powerful lobbying groups) and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, which is backed by most major US investors in India and the Modi government.
Jaishankar will meet some lawmakers as well, but not as many as Indians would have wanted to, at a dinner hosted by Indian ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu. “l look forward to meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister @DrSJaishankar, Ambassador @SandhuTaranjitS, and other leaders concerned with the US-India relationship, for dinner this evening,” said Congressman Brad Sherman in a tweet. He is the co-chair of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives.