US / NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan and its Implications
Amb Amar Sinha

The author had the opportunity to attend on 5 May 2021 a very engaging round table jointly hosted by the Vivekananda Foundation, New Delhi, and Hudson Institute, Washington DC on the imminent US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and its impact on the region, including India. Close to a dozen well known experts participated in a candid exchange of views.

It is evident this decision of the Biden Administration will have far reaching consequences for every stakeholder- inside and out, far and near. It would be naïve to pretend otherwise. The post 2001 order and the internal political and security landscape in Afghanistan, that the world had got used to, is set to transform substantially- impacting attendant geopolitical considerations, altering the perspective and motivation of each major ‘player’ and, thus, requiring a retooling of their policies.

Doha Agreement- an Epitaph?

The Doha Agreement of last February is dead and the ‘peace process’ despite several concessions to Taliban has failed to sputter into life. The Taliban felt no compulsion to signal any intention to seriously negotiate a settlement- but resorted to increased violence and targeted killings. The concessions given by the Trump administration as ‘sweetener’ for US Taliban negotiations were pocketed quietly. Sensing the US need to seek its concurrence to push back its 01 May deadline, it upped its demands.

You have the Clock but we have the Time

Since September last year, it was clear that Taliban will await the results of the US elections and the new administration’s review eroded any incentive to engage. It was then only expedient to wait for confirmation of the final withdrawal schedule. Outcome of the review was surprising given the war weariness, and President Biden’s well known views on ‘endless wars’. Retention of former US Special Representative for Afghanistan signalled continuity, while statements supportive of democratic institutions in Afghanistan were hopeful straws in the wind, but nothing more. The period of review was perhaps used by the US to assuage hurt feelings within NATO, and repair the damage done to alliance unity. Finally, they came up with a joint timetable that began on 1 May and pushed the earlier deadline by 3 months to complete withdrawal before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks.

Biden or Bye then?

In all fairness, President Biden was dealt a bad hand, with no good options. Reneging on the Agreement would have only prolonged this endless war, further pushing back hope for peace in Afghanistan. In fact, new demands would have been made on the US/ NATO military resources as fierce fighting was likely to erupt. It was a tough decision to make- more so if reports of POTUS overruling Pentagon are correct but delaying a decision carried its own complexities. Quibbling on the perfect timing, modality, instruments used, conditionality, residual presence etc. can go on endlessly.

Some hold that the withdrawal will bring to close a lingering chapter of the cold war. By closing this loop, Biden brought finality, and opens a path forward. The decision also ‘localizes’ as well as ‘regionalizes’ this issue in many ways. The onus is now on the Afghan Nationalist/Republican, as well as the Taliban leadership to find a mutually acceptable solution for the sake of the nation they expect to govern. It also devolves much greater responsibility on the “regional” powers and neighbours of Afghanistan to stabilize and pacify Afghanistan for their own sake. Policy based solely on “anti-Americanism” will not suffice, and as Secretary Blinken recently said the time for free riding is over.

Seeking Reason

Significant diplomatic efforts are being made by the Troika of US, Russia and China, and Pakistan in its extended format, to resuscitate the proposed UN led process in Turkey but the Talban is proving to be adamant. It is likely that the Taliban, with a view to not seriously offending both Qatar and Turkey, may relent after Eid. However, the traditional Eid message released by their leader makes it clear that they will not accept any transitional arrangement. The uptick in violence in Afghanistan clearly indicates that, the Doha Agreement notwithstanding, Taliban is not interested in any power sharing. It seeks absolute monopoly on power and it wants to be the sole arbiter of Afghanistan’s fate. Taliban announced a three-day truce for Eid- a show of fake piety after nonstop bloodshed of innocents throughout the holy month!

Muddled Afghan Scene

On the other hand, Government of President Ghani finds itself domestically isolated and internationally marginalized- with very few governments standing behind it. The political landscape in Kabul appears fragmented, with short sightedness and personal ambitions taking front seat. If this fragility is not quickly addressed a bad situation may turn worse, and one could expect a period of serious turmoil before it stabilizes. It will not be surprising if individual regional leaders start preparing to resist Taliban’s advances once the troop withdrawal is complete. No one is willing to roll over and pretend at being dead- notwithstanding the eloquence of the Eid message of open arms and brotherly embrace.

Taliban and its Aftermath

A radical Islamist group’s ascendancy in the immediate neighbourhood will be cause for great discomfort to all neighbours. Iran which has considerable influence in Afghanistan, will not sit easy with an avowedly sectarian group. Russia, which has regained sufficient lost ground in Afghanistan, will be worried about its underbelly in Central Asia. China may draw some comfort from the enhanced influence of Pakistan though will find itself ill at ease. Peace and stability is essential for its Belt and Road initiative to roll out as planned, as its experience in troubled Pakistan should have made it clear by now. Even for Pakistan, already grappling with a range of extremist groups, it will be a poisoned chalice. The different extremist groups active in Pakistan, and also those focussed on India, China and Central Asia and beyond, will coalesce and find refuge in the ecosystem created by Taliban in the Af-Pak region- these groups have a long history of being co-located in Taliban territory. Affinity of shared ideology is effective glue.

Some Bitter Truths

It is pertinent to recall that during the Taliban regime 1.0 (1996-2001) they did not hesitate to provide refuge to Saudi dissident, Osama Bin Laden- despite Saudi Arabia being one of the only three countries that had lent recognition to that pariah regime, and had backed them financially in their jehad. Nor did Taliban flinch from organizing an attack in Kandahar as recently as Feb 2017 that killed 6 UAE diplomats including their Ambassador to Afghanistan. It had taken only 36000 USD and promise of a house in Pakistan, besides training and supplies from Quetta, for the chef to manage this attack inside the Governor’s residence! UAE, besides Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, was one of the three countries to recognize the Taliban regime headed by Mullah Omar. Therein lie the lessons for those who may need a reminder. Geopolitics creates its own virtual reality ignoring hard facts.

Russia and China

It is also clear that a resurgent Russia, and a patient China, will seek to carve out larger roles for themselves. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan will serve their purposes. Soon it will be a moment for reckoning for these two powers who worked closely with the US to bring the peace process to the start point. Going forward they will be required to exert themselves more if the process has to proceed further, and also exercise their influence on the Taliban to moderate its position if any common ground has to be found. Substantial financial resources will also be needed to be ploughed in if the western aid begins to taper off.

There is little doubt Afghanistan will figure high in the Chinese grand strategy for the region for different reasons and thus Chinese willingness to cut a deal with the Taliban directly, or through its iron friend, is not unlikely. However, such a dalliance with extremist groups carries the danger of a blow back in its restive Muslim dominated areas of Xinjiang. Ideologies have a habit of seeping through borders, and thus will also pose a serious challenge to Pakistan. Pakistan will find it difficult to square up its strategic objectives with those of its chief benefactor. The dual policy that it pursued with the ‘trusting’ Americans may not prove successful with the Chinese. A new play book will be needed.

Iran

Iran is an important player in Afghanistan with considerable influence in general, but particularly so among the Shia Hazara community, and the erstwhile members of the ‘Northern alliance’. Taliban has been behind a number of heinous attacks on the minority community, and though not claimed the attack on a girls’ school in Kabul (9 May 2021) clearly had their imprint. Iran will not stand by and watch as Shias are specifically targeted. Iran wants Taliban to be part of the power structure in Kabul but not to control it- so an Islamic Emirate version 2.0 is not on the table as far as Iran is concerned.

India

Iranian position is most aligned to India’s- a peaceful and negotiated reintegration of the Taliban as a legitimate political force in Afghanistan, through a process of negotiations that is Afghan led and Afghan owned and controlled. Coercion and violence is not an option. The people of Afghanistan want peace immediately, but they do not wish to see their achievements wiped out by a new version of Islamic Emirate which once again makes Afghanistan a pariah nation- ruled by fanatic zealots- hiding behind the smokescreen of religion. India has wisely stood behind this predominant Afghan public opinion. Speaking at Heart of Asia meeting in Dushanbe in end March, Indian External Affairs Minister spoke of the ‘dual peace’ that Afghanistan needs- peace within and peace around. He has also been emphatic that road to Afghanistan’s future is not going back in history. But all entreaties to find a negotiated solution for unity and peace, and for preserving Afghanistan independence and sovereignty, have fallen on deaf ears of the Taliban. Coercion and violence as a route to power is not an option in today’s Afghanistan- rest of the world has concluded that military victory is not an option, but it appears this lesson is still eluding the Taliban and its supporters across the border.

India- Pakistan

Though personally loathe to seeing Afghanistan through a regional prism one cannot but avoid it since in Pak perception and narrative it sees close India Afghanistan relations as an existential threat. It is in this context that the recent Pakistan’s overture to India needs to be seen. When so close to the ‘victory line’, it is important for Pakistan to present a reasonable face to the world as it gears for the prize next door. The recent pronouncement can only be tactical, as the demands made of India, to roll back its domestic legislation, are not worthy of any serious consideration. India will in any case warily approach such olive branch given her past experience with several false starts. The much talked about ‘paradigm shift’ in Pakistan stance will take place once it sheds it deep rooted suspicion and hatred of India, and starts to walk the talk. However, if the cease fire holds it would be the first baby step in the right direction.

Notwithstanding the state of the bilateral relations, India will have to thwart the false narrative Pakistan tends to create: that seeks to create a false linkage between state of India Pakistan bilateral relations and peace in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a sovereign nation, a friendly nation, but not India’s client state. Indeed, if only Pakistan played it right it can have substantial sway in Afghanistan and it should know that Afghans will not be controlled by Pakistan, or any other country. That is the nature of the land and its people.

Taliban

Lastly, the withdrawal can also have profound implications for the Taliban itself. First of all, there is a need to dispel any notion that Taliban will take over Kabul the day US and NATO troops leave. ANDSF has proven capabilities, and more than foreign troops it requires financial and technical support till its economy becomes self-sustaining. The current mood in Afghanistan is to put up a stout fight till Taliban too comes to realize that military option is not really an option. The US withdrawal will undercut its narrative of ‘jehad’ and increasingly it would find it hard to convince its rank and file that killing innocent Afghans is part of their religious duty. It continuing intransigence, and escalating violence, may once again show it up for what it is, and reduce its current global visibility and acceptance. Their continued presence in Doha and their freedom of movement may also come into question. A public snub to Doha, Turkey and the UN will not go down well, and they have proven adamant in face of the extended troika efforts as well. All this will impact Taliban’s position externally, while continuing violence in Afghanistan will erode their internal acceptance. The abysmally low support for Hekmatyar in the last elections proves that Afghans may be willing to forgive but not forget- not in a hurry surely. Taliban’s hopes of piggy back riding on the Doha agreement to power in Kabul may also recede.

Test for the Rest

World will have to grapple with the immediate challenge of the message such a perceived Taliban success will send to other radical groups. It will also have to deal with a new wave of immigrants and the Syrian crisis led to the establishment of the land/sea route to Europe. Under Biden when ‘diplomacy is back’ there is also a possibility of new and effective pressure on Pakistan so that its malfeasance of the past that really led to the US failure, do not go unaccounted or unpunished.

Inconclusive Conclusion

Thus, it is clear we have not seen the final chapter yet in the unfolding Afghanistan story. The US decision makes the problem more local and regional, and some of the nations quite active till now driven by a sense of competition with the US, will need a fresh policy if they have to play an effective role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. Will this then create differences between China, Russia and Pakistan? Or will they outsource their problem to Pakistan to handle? Will the Taliban unity unravel as it comes closer to actually wielding power, negotiated or otherwise? Only time will give us the answers.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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