India will be hoping that the Biden administration retains a small military presence in Afghanistan for some more time. Without this, its $15-billion investments and its strategic calculus in the region could be completely upended, leaving the field open for the Pakistan-backed Taliban to take over.
The US military has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. During this time, it has lost of hundreds of personnel, spent billions of dollars on logistics and materials and, after the initial decisive victories against the ruling Taliban, has got bogged down in the country that has earned the moniker “graveyard of empires” with some justification.
There is fatigue setting in. And diplomats, strategic experts and military analysts in interested capitals around the world, including in New Delhi, realise that something has to give – that the US, obviously, cannot stay on in that country forever.
Will the new Joe Biden administration honour the previous Trump government’s promise of withdrawing all troops from and ending its military presence in Afghanistan by May this year? Or will it retain the 2,500 troops – the lowest level of US military presence in that country since 2001 – it now has in that country in their positions for some more time?
Expectedly, this issue is being discussed earnestly in the Indian establishment. Since the overthrow of the brutal Taliban government by Allied forces in 2001, India has invested billions of dollars – some estimates put the figure at about $15 billion – in Afghanistan.
The country enjoys tremendous goodwill among the common people of Afghanistan, which has emerged as one of New Delhi’s closest allies in the sub-continent – united as they are by a shared wariness about Pakistan.
India will, therefore, be the biggest loser if the US withdraws completely from Afghanistan, leaving the field clear for the Pakistan-backed Taliban to take over. A New Yorker article dated January 20 says Trump, in his eagerness to extract the US from that war-torn country, conceded too much to the Taliban at their talks in Doha without getting any iron-clad guarantees on the future.
“The agreement’s goals are to withdraw all US troops…. Yet, Biden will inherit a fragile mess, one that comes with an important deadline in May. That is when, according to the agreement, all American troops are supposed to have departed, in exchange for Taliban guarantees to prevent Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. But the conditions that some had hoped might prevail in the country by now—greatly reduced violence, progress in establishing a new political order—have not materialised.
“Last September, talks began in Doha to allow the Taliban and the Afghan government to define a ‘road map’ to a peaceful political future, but the negotiations have barely progressed, and the civil war remains violent, with no ceasefire in sight. Biden will nevertheless have to decide whether to pull all American soldiers out by May. If he decides to leave troops in place for a time, he will have to figure out how to do so without blowing up the Doha talks or catalysing yet more violence.”
The best India can hope for, among several progressively worse options, is that the US retains some pockets of troops in Afghanistan so as to keep Taliban activities in check. Failing that, there is little standing between Pakistan and its goal of gaining strategic depth to pursue its 30-year-old proxy war against India.
A withdrawal will leave the Taliban much stronger than the civilian government nominally in charge in Kabul and allow Pakistan to unleash the full power of its proxy militias in Kashmir and other parts of India.
A senior Indian government official told India Global Business: “Afghanistan today is like a jigsaw puzzle, with several groups – the civilian government and various factions within it, the Taliban, the Tajiks and others – having pockets of influence and authority in different parts of the country. The US presence is ensuring a semblance of stability and holding his jigsaw in place. If the US withdraws, this entire picture will fall apart.”
The US military is believed to be of the opinion that a complete withdrawal will make it impossible for it to re-enter the country should things get of control.
India’s best hope is that a Biden administration, which will be respectful of institutional inputs from its various agencies, looks at the big picture and retains a small presence in the country.
The other option – of India directly entering the fray to secure its vital interests – is not on the table at this point in time. And it is unlikely to be exercised given India’s traditional reticence about getting involved in foreign conflicts as well as the more important imperative of battling the Covid crisis at home and rebuilding the pandemic-hit economy that is showing signs of a revival.
India will then have to figure out new options with the help of Russia, Iran, Tajikistan and others, all of which will take time to put in place. Meanwhile, India’s carefully cultivated strategic calculus in the region could go up in smoke.
New Delhi is, therefore, keeping a close watch on the Biden administration’s next steps in Afghanistan.