Afghanistan used to take pride in being the graveyard of empires, but today it is a battlefield in which a helpless people is being held hostage by evil forces. The undignified and disorganised withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan after a war on terror, which lasted for twenty years, has been characterised by a US commentator as “one more signpost of the end of the American empire.” The whole region is gripped by the threat of terror, violence and chaos. Combined with the continuing horror of the pandemic, Afghanistan has become a threat to international peace and security.
The primary responsibility for the present situation is squarely on the US, which thoughtlessly deserted Afghanistan even before evacuating those who had supported and helped the US forces for many years. The evacuation being planned now is full of hazards even though a number of countries have promised to help by temporarily accommodating the evacuees.
Loss of face for US
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US priority was to get the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union was driven out with the support of the Mujahideen, which Washington had armed and financed, Washington paid no attention to Afghanistan until the attacks of 9/11. What was meant to be a short military action dragged on for twenty years. The US realised a few years ago that precious American lives should not be wasted on Afghanistan and successive Presidents planned various exit strategies by backing an Afghan Government, which was being undermined by the Taliban. Pakistan, which was a partner in the war on terror on payment of large sums, had fanned the flames of terrorism in the region. Finally, the US decided to leave even if it meant a loss of face and set several deadlines to withdraw, but negotiations on the finer points of the withdrawal dragged on.
Parleys precede pull-out
The months-long negotiations, involving the United Nations, big powers, regional countries and others, were not from a position of strength as the Taliban knew that victory was at hand and that it would be a matter of time before they would get the upper hand. President Biden set the deadline of September 11, but the US quietly handed over the Bagram air base to the Afghan Government on 1 July, knowing that the Taliban would inherit the booty left behind. It became clear that the US investments have been futile as the land will be devastated once more by the Taliban. The terms of settlement negotiated with Taliban in Doha and elsewhere like a ceasefire, severing links with Al Qaeda, intra-Afghan peace talks and others became things of the past.
To prevent the impending catastrophe, Washington should have had a strategy to keep the Afghan Government in power for as long as possible to prevent a rapid take over by the Taliban. The details of such a strategy, including substantial financial assistance, should have been announced to let it be known that despite the dreams of the Taliban and their masters, Pakistan, Afghanistan will not fall into their laps in a hurry. It should be remembered that even after the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Najibullah Government remained in control with Soviet assistance. The Taliban take-over took place only after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in Vietnam, some arrangements were made to make the transition less tumultuous.
Mission over for US
Many Western strategists believe that the US had a responsibility to support the democratic forces in Afghanistan. The fact that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his colleagues were received in Washington by President Joe Biden and his Congressional colleagues gave some hope in that regard. President Biden maintained throughout that the US mission in Afghanistan was to avenge the 9/11 attacks and not to nurture and nourish a new Government there. He felt that the task was completed when the Taliban was thrown out of power and Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding in Pakistan, was killed.
A clear victory for Taliban on account of the abject surrender of the US-trained Afghan forces without even the structure of a Government has led to a repressive regime, similar to the one in 1996, which destroyed the Country’s rich cultural heritage, denied fundamental freedoms and education to women and threatened India in various ways. Once again, Pakistan and other fundamentalist forces will hold sway and aggravate terrorism in the Kashmir valley. Pakistan may have its own differences with the Taliban on strategy, but in their hatred towards India, they will be united.
Expect China's forays
One major danger in the emerging situation is the apparent interest of China in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Taliban has already invited China to rebuild Afghanistan and has assured protection to its people and assets. This will enable China to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan and link it with the BRI in Pakistan and beyond. A high-level Taliban delegation was feted in China at the same time when the US Secretary of State was discussing in Delhi ways and means of supporting the Kabul Government. China will be aware of the plight of the big powers, who got mired in the Afghan cauldron and may not engage its military, but provide full support to Pakistan.
A China-Pakistan-Taliban axis in Afghanistan will be a direct threat to Indian interests and projects in the region. China may be able to neutralise in the bargain the grievances of some Islamic countries over the treatment of Muslim minorities in China. Even Iran and Russia have extended support to Taliban as they have their own axe to grind, regardless of the contacts India had established with both of them.
India has always been in the periphery of the international negotiations on Afghanistan, but it has made considerable investments in Afghanistan for reconstruction and development. Its experience of the Taliban government was a nightmare and so it hoped that some US presence would prevent a collapse. The US had made an effort to involve India in Afghanistan, but that did not happen because of Pakistan. India was an adversary of Taliban during the Soviet occupation, the Taliban Government and the American war on terror and, therefore, it is not going to be easy for us to have a dialogue with the Taliban. Our informal contacts with the Taliban have not led to any open negotiations with them on the future of Afghanistan. On the contrary, Taliban has threatened to destroy the vestiges of Indian cooperation with the Kabul regime. Some strategists have begun to blame the Government of India for not opening talks with the Taliban, but no one was sure whether Taliban was willing to engage with India.
If history repeats itself and the Taliban holds sway in Afghanistan, India will bear the brunt of that eventuality. For that reason, India stressed at the UN Security Council meeting recently that “the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past” and that terrorist safe havens in the region must be dismantled immediately and terrorist supply chains disrupted. India also emphasised that it is time for the UN Security Council to decide on actions to ensure immediate cessation of violence in that country.
“As a neighbour of Afghanistan, the current situation prevailing in the country is of great concern to us. The violence shows no sign of abating,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador T S Tirumurti, said. At the same time, India has stated that India’s approach will be guided by its friendship with the people of Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi just reminded the world that “the reign of terror is always temporary and cannot be permanent.” And there lies the only hope for Afghanistan and the region.