US president Joe Biden’s claim on 8 July that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and that it had accomplished its objectives there of killing Osama bin Laden and undercutting al-Qaeda’s ability to launch more attacks on the United States recalls former president George W Bush’s broader objective “to build a stable, strong, effectively governed Afghanistan that won’t degenerate into chaos”, or former president Barack Obama’s narrower objective of “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorism”.
The irony is that Osama was killed not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan a decade after the US attacked Afghanistan, and for merely “undercutting” al-Qaeda, the US has spent over a trillion dollars and lost over 2,400 soldiers in over 20 years.
The real safe haven responsible for Taliban’s resurgence that has forced a US retreat from Afghanistan is Pakistan, and that Biden has ignored. Not only that, for him to say that “terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world” shows an unwillingness to adequately recognise Pakistan’s jihadi terrorist affiliations even now.
For Biden to say that the Afghan people needed to dictate their own future is a recognition that the US could not dictate the future of Afghanistan despite its enormous military and diplomatic might. Calling for a diplomatic solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban when its own diplomatic engagement with the Taliban hasn’t produced a path towards peace amounts to washing its hands off the future of the Afghan people.
Maintaining an “interest in the country’s future” implies watching developments in Afghanistan from a distance with no desire to get seriously involved again, other than “determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence”. That seems wishful thinking when General Miller, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, has expressed deep concern that Afghanistan could face “very hard times” and could slide into a chaotic civil war.
The many iornies
Biden himself had acknowledged in April that violence on the ground will increase after the US withdrawal. What is surprising is that the White House spokesperson should admit that an extended American stay would have meant more casualties because the Taliban would have stepped up its targeting of US troops. The quiet withdrawal from Bagram air base, its most important airfield in Afghanistan, meets the Taliban demand that the US must not retain any bases in Afghanistan.
The US is effectively abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. The irony is that the US ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 and 20 years later they have opened the road for it to take back power in the country.
There are other ironies too. The US military action against the Taliban was part of its war on terror, though it never designated the Taliban as a terrorist organisation. Today, the Taliban is resorting to horrific terrorist attacks against innocent Afghan civilians, including school girls, but this has not deterred the US from negotiating with them as part of its withdrawal strategy.
Osama bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan to Pakistan and was sheltered there for many years until he was taken out in a secret operation, and yet, despite Pakistani complicity in this, and in providing safe havens to the Taliban while publicly denying it, the US has never seriously punished Pakistan for supporting terrorism by applying meaningful sanctions.
Despite former US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen calling the Haqqani group a veritable arm of the ISI, Pakistan resisted the US pressure to act against it even though the group inflicted casualties on the US forces in Afghanistan.
Today, Pakistan, which has always been a part of the problem in obstructing the creation of a peaceful, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan after the eviction of the Taliban, is being regarded by the US positively as a facilitator for a negotiated US withdrawal by leveraging its links with the Taliban.
The Indian response
India and others have been long aware of the US decision to quit Afghanistan without mission accomplished and have had ample time to consider its implications for India and the region, and devise an approach that would safeguard its minimum interests in a country where internal and external developments have a bearing on India’s security.
Pakistan considers India’s presence in Afghanistan a threat to its own security. This is a position it takes to justify its ambition to exercise control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and counter India’s influence there.
Its foreign minister has questioned very recently India’s unacceptably large presence in Afghanistan despite not being India’s neighbour and accused India of terrorism in Pakistan conducted from Afghan soil. (Pursuing that logic, Shah Mehmood Qureshi should explain why Pakistan has such a large presence in Nepal and Sri Lanka). India has experience of Pakistan training jihadis in Afghanistan for terrorism in Kashmir, besides of course the IC 814 incident when the Taliban were in power in the country.
The US is allowing Pakistan to establish its influence in Afghanistan through its relationship with the Taliban in full awareness that Pakistan looks at Afghanistan as providing it strategic depth against India. The US is also aware of the increasing depth of Pakistan-China strategic ties and what its withdrawal entails in terms of expansion of Chinese influence in this region. China, already dominant in Central Asia, now a critical partner of Iran and in a position to fill up the strategic space vacated by the US in Afghanistan, is set to consolidate its hold over this part of the Asian land mass, with implications for India’s political, economic and security interests.
India has rightly maintained its support for the legitimate Afghan government and has consistently called for respecting and protecting the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and has been supporting an inclusive, Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.
It believes that any political settlement in Afghanistan must protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Afghans, including women, youth and minorities, and build upon the economic, social, political and development gains achieved since 2001 under a democratic constitutional framework.
India has condemned the unacceptable level of violence perpetrated against the national forces of Afghanistan and civilians and the targeted assassinations of civil rights activists and media persons, called for an immediate, permanent and comprehensive nationwide ceasefire that would demonstrate a genuine commitment of the Taliban to lasting reconciliation.
No easy process
India and the European Union, for instance, have agreed on the importance of ensuring that the soil of Afghanistan should not be used by terrorist groups to threaten the security of India and the EU, and the need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for international terrorism. They have agreed that security in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with security in the region and have stressed the need for Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional stakeholders to be active and honest facilitators in promoting a lasting, stable and peaceful resolution of the conflict. They have also agreed that they will not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as stated in UNSC Resolution 2513.
Of course, neither India nor the EU, or for that matter the US after its withdrawal can ensure a future for Afghanistan that will preserve the democratic and social gains made by the Afghan society in the last 20 years.
On the ground, the Taliban has already made major gains, even in the north and the west, close to the Tajik and Iranian borders, not to mention the south and east. The Afghan national security forces have suffered major casualties.
India’s choices are essentially diplomatic at this stage, though if a civil war erupts, harder choices will have to be made as was the case when India backed the Northern Alliance. But that was to prevent a total takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, not to defeat it on the ground, which happened only when the US took military action against the Taliban.
Today, however, the situation is different. Russia is engaging the Taliban and recognises it as a legitimate political force. Iran was earlier engaging the Taliban too, but lately has begun openly opposing the Taliban and has declared that an Islamic Emirate in the country would be a threat to Iran’s security. Even Russia may review its approach if a civil war-like situation erupted and a violent takeover by the Taliban threatened the security of neighbouring Central Asian states.
In that case India, Iran and Russia may address the Afghanistan issue in a perspective that is different from recent assumptions about a relatively manageable transition in Afghanistan. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent visit to Iran en route to Russia is significant in this context.
The arugment that India made a mistake in not engaging the Taliban when all others were doing so misses the basic point that unlike others India is a victim of terrorism as no other country in the region is except Afghanistan itself, and the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban presents a specific threat to India. Pakistan is not promoting terrorism against any other neighbour of Afghanistan. The Taliban have destroyed the legacy of the Indic civilisation in Afghanistan when last in power.
India’s entire stance against terrorism and radicalism would have lost its rationale if India itself legitimised such an obscurantist, medieval-minded Islamic group as the Taliban with all its terrorist brutalities.
What would the Taliban have given India in return for legitimising them? Distanced themselves from Pakistani machinations, invited us against Pakistani wishes to provide developmental assistance and projects in Afghanistan, press Pakistan for transit rights to do trade with India, and so on?
There are no easy choices for India. We are in the Security Council and can shape thinking in that body through active diplomacy. We must press for UN involvement. We will no doubt be in close touch with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. We must continue to support the legitimate government of Afghanistan politically and morally. Beyond that we should wait and watch, see how the situation unfolds as there are many uncertainties ahead.
The most important thing is to strengthen our security shield in Jammu and Kashmir.
The author is former Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. Views are personal.