A tale of four presidents, Afghanistan, and India

Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden took steps which aligned with Indian goals. But their policies also frustrated, undercut, or harmed Indian interests
Afghans residing in India take part in a demonstration outside the UN Refugee Agency ( UNHCR) office in New Delhi on August 23 to protest against the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP) PREMIUM
Afghans residing in India take part in a demonstration outside the UN Refugee Agency ( UNHCR) office in New Delhi on August 23 to protest against the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP)
Updated on Aug 23, 2021 06:16 PM IST
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ByDhruva Jaishankar

“It was never expected that we will have victory in Afghanistan,” Taliban leader Mullah Baradar said after his return to Kabul. He was certainly not alone in expressing surprise at the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s complete takeover.

In the aftermath, there is plenty of blame to go around. Officials in several regional capitals played an active role in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power. Many Afghans feel betrayed by their own country’s erstwhile leadership, with good reason. Others in the international community arguably did not do enough. But there is no escaping the fact that significant failures lay with successive United States (US) leaders for the execution of the Afghanistan war, the doomed reconciliation process, and the chaotic withdrawal.

The US intervention in Afghanistan followed the devastating 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda, which struck the nerve centres of the US military and financial markets. Under George W Bush, the US easily ousted the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had sheltered al-Qaeda’s leadership. But the Bush administration was also worried about a large-scale military commitment and maintained only a small military footprint in Afghanistan at the outset. The US intervention, therefore, involved aerial bombardment, the extensive use of special operations forces, and local alliances on the ground.

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For India, the US policy reversal after the 1980s, when it had actively supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and the 1990s, when it largely ignored the region, was welcome. The Taliban was no friend of India, as the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft made evident, and the group had supported and allied with India-focused terrorists, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Yet, despite ousting the Taliban, the Bush administration opted to work with Pakistan. It remained wary of coordination with India in Afghanistan, even as it deepened cooperation with New Delhi on defence and civilian nuclear energy. After 2003, the Bush administration also shifted its focus and resources to the intervention in Iraq.

Barack Obama was elected president as US forces began the drawdown from Iraq. The security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated sharply, and Obama — while sceptical of foreign military intervention — had campaigned on Afghanistan being a just war. He commissioned Bruce Riedel to conduct an inter-agency review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. Richard Holbrooke was appointed Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a surge of US military forces was deployed under General Stanley McChrystal to wage a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan akin to the one waged in Iraq.

Obama, more than any other US president, took the fight to Pakistan. Afghanistan became a frontline State against Pakistan, rather than the other way around, and US-Pakistan relations deteriorated sharply. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Pakistani forces exchanged fire; US supply lines were sabotaged; a US consular employee named Raymond Davis was arrested for killing two Pakistanis; and US special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

But the Obama administration also clung to the notion that Pakistan could be dissuaded from its support for terrorists through the brokering of an India-Pakistan agreement on Jammu and Kashmir. India rebuffed efforts to interfere in what it considered a bilateral matter. Additionally, the US sought to build leverage with Pakistan by increasing civilian assistance under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, in what proved to be a wasteful and futile exercise. With an eye on re-election, Obama further undercut his efforts by prematurely announcing a drawdown of forces.

Donald Trump’s election was followed by the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan and the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against US forces. At the insistence of national security adviser HR McMaster, Trump repledged US military support for Afghanistan. His initial strategy was welcomed in New Delhi, as were greater coordination efforts between Washington, Kabul, and New Delhi.

But following McMaster’s dismissal in 2018, Trump reversed course. Zalmay Khalilzad was made the primary interlocutor for talks with the Taliban, and a flimsy agreement was hastily brokered, Taliban prisoners were released, and a drawdown of US forces was initiated.

Finally, Joe Biden and his advisers gave high priority to India in their first six months in office. Coordination on Afghanistan increased in several respects. Yet Biden was committed to a quick and complete withdrawal, resulting in the swift collapse of the Afghan government in August. The outcome, and the manner in which it came about, will undoubtedly prove harmful for India’s regional security interests.

From 2001 to 2020, the US was neither willing to commit too much for too long to Afghanistan, nor was it willing to face the potentially disastrous consequences of withdrawal. The result was the worst of all worlds — over a trillion dollars spent and thousands of lives lost with little to show for it.

From an Indian vantage point, each of the four successive US administrations took important steps that aligned with India’s desired end state for regional security. Yet, for different reasons, all four administrations also adopted policies that frustrated, undercut, or otherwise harmed Indian interests. Whether a different set of choices could have resulted in better outcomes for Afghanistan, India, and the US will be a matter for historians to debate in the coming years and decades.

Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director of ORF-America

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, January 17, 2022