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US withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for India

By: Alok Bansal
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Reports emanating from the United States Department of Defence indicate that the US is all set to pull out all its troops from Afghanistan this year itself. This could result in the US withdrawal well before the timeline agreed to in the US-Taliban deal that was negotiated in February 2020.

Once implemented this could bring an end to the longest war in the US history. The US government is rushing through the motions, as pulling out of Afghanistan could possibly bolster President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, which has come under severe strain after his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

However, the million-dollar question is: will the US withdrawal usher in peace? One needs to understand that for a long time now, the US forces were not in the forefront of fighting the Taliban or its numerous splintered associates and adversaries. The fight against the Taliban and other terrorist outfits has largely been carried out by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police. The US forces were occasionally called upon to provide support, as the nascent Afghan Air Force does not possess adequate firepower to provide close air support to the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF).

After the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Islamabad prevailed upon the US and prevented it from strengthening the Afghan Air Force as well as the artillery and armored components of the ANA, on the grounds that they had limited usage in ongoing counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. This has prevented the ANSF from having the decisive edge against the Taliban. However, both the Afghan Air Force and Afghan National Army are gaining strength and may not really require US military support in times to come. It is, therefore, important to understand as to why the US withdrawal will make a difference.

A cursory look at Afghan history will clearly reveal that most of the governments in Kabul fell when some of the key leaders switched sides. Najibullah fell after inflicting a decisive defeat on the Mujahideen in the Battle of Jalalabad, because two of his key generals crossed over. The Taliban also captured power in Kabul by winning over the loyalties of several key commanders aligned with different groups of Mujahideen.

Afghans have usually been fence-sitters, joining the side which appears to be winning. The presence of US troops in Afghanistan provides the regime in Kabul some sort of insurance and a semblance of stability. The removal of the US troops could take away this veneer of invincibility from the regime. Considering the fractured polity of Afghan government and society, this could result in different factions of the government, including security personnel, crossing over to Taliban, if they perceive them to be winning.

Even if the Taliban were to behave like good boys and ‘give up violence,’ what would it entail? Firstly, they would expect to be included in the government and history tells us that whenever groups with armed cadres join coalition governments, they eventually push out others and take over the government. 

Secondly, it is quite feasible that many sections of Taliban, including the Haqqanis, may not stop fighting. These splinter groups could continue to indulge in acts of violence, either by themselves or by joining hands with the Islamic State. As it is, the level of violence in Afghanistan has not really come down, despite the US-Taliban deal. Numerous attacks have taken place which have not been claimed by anyone. Although the Taliban have denied their involvement, but that may just be a ruse.

Hence US withdrawal from Afghanistan could either lead to a bout of violent instability or lead to a Taliban-controlled government in Kabul, which would obviously be willing to dance to Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi’s tunes. Both the possibilities do not augur well for India, which has invested a lot of money, resources, and efforts in strengthening the Afghan nation. More significantly, the foot soldiers of Taliban are not going to start plowing the field just because the US has signed a peace deal with Taliban. They will simply move to a new arena to continue their jihad.

The ideology of Taliban is not often understood and the theological connect between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is deliberately under played. Theologically, the jihad can only be launched under a righteous leader or Amir-ul-Mumineen. Consequently, Al Qaeda has never claimed that its jihad has been under the leadership of Osama bin Laden earlier or Ayman al-Zawahiri now. Their Amir-ul-Mumineen unambiguously was Mullah Omar earlier and is now Mullah Akhundzada, the leader of Taliban. Without an Amir-ul-Mumineen, the Al Qaeda’s jihad becomes theocratically and theologically illegitimate. Even after the peace deal with the US, neither Al Qaeda nor Taliban have denied this position of Mulla Akhundzada. Any assurance given to the Americans by the Taliban is probably just a ruse to delude them into leaving the country. 

More significantly, this symbiotic relationship between the Al Qaeda and Taliban is premised on their common belief in the establishment of a global Islamic Emirate. Consequently, if it gains power in Afghanistan, irrespective of the assurances given to the US negotiators, the Taliban will not confine its radical ideology to the territorial frontiers of Afghanistan. It will start exporting its ideology and jihad in the neighborhood and wherever they find conducive atmosphere. 

As a result, many of the Taliban foot soldiers could move to India, especially to the Kashmir Valley, in pursuit of their ‘jihad.’ The insurgency in Kashmir had peaked in 1996, when Taliban had captured power in Afghanistan. It is, therefore, critical for India to analyze the impact of the US withdrawal and take timely actions to guard its interests. Ideally, it would be advisable for India to impress upon the US the need to retain a token military presence in Afghanistan till the country stabilizes. However, considering the electoral compulsions, President Trump is unlikely to comply.

Alternatively, it would be in Indian interest to strengthen the Afghan national security forces and the key to their effectiveness is their training and their hardware. Nato and the West are likely to continue meeting the essential hardware requirements of the Afghan forces in foreseeable future, but India could also consider providing some of its obsolescent armored vehicles and artillery, which would still be quite effective against the local terrorists. More significantly, India needs to augment its training efforts by setting up military training facilities in Afghanistan. The present system of getting Afghans to India for training has its own limitations.

India needs to appreciate that if it has to eventually fight the Taliban, it makes far more sense to fight them in Kabul than to deal with them at Wagah or Srinagar. Taliban spokespersons at the moment are giving numerous assurances to all and sundry, including India, about their benign intent, but the fact is that a beast cannot change its basic nature. India, therefore, needs to be prepare for any eventuality, as developments in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on India’s national security.

A former naval officer, the author is Director, India Foundation, and an adjunct professor at New Delhi Institute of Management (NDIM) 

Source: Strategic Study India
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US withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for India

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