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US withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for India

In a recent televised address, US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all combat troops from Afghanistan by September 11, ending the longest-running war in American history. Biden said “It is time to end America’s longest war and to bring American troops home. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” Furthermore, the last two decades have witnessed the death of more than 2300 US soldiers, lakhs being wounded, countless Afghan lives lost with an estimated expenditure of $2 trillion of taxpayer money. The removal of approximately 3000 troops happens to coincide with the 20thanniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which provoked the US invasion of Afghanistan.

Timeline of the US war in Afghanistan

The 9/11 attack in 2001 prompted President George W. Bush to sign into law the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), allowing the US to use force against the nations, organizations, or persons behind the 9/11 attack, namely the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. In October of 2001, the American and British forces carried out ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ that managed to soften the Taliban defenses, following which several US Special forces, Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces provided support on the ground. In December 2001, Hamid Karzai was elected to head the Afghan Interim Administration, subsequent to which the UNSC established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the new authority. In 2003, NATO joined the ISAF and assumed its leadership. In December 2014, NATO formally ended ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan and officially transferred full security responsibility to the Afghan government, and the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support was formed, simultaneously. In 2019, the US ramped up its peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, with the Taliban officials vowing to block international terrorist groups from Afghanistan should the US withdraw its troops. However, in September that year Trump called off the talks due to the killing of a US soldier by Taliban fighters. In 2020, the US and Taliban signed an agreement paving the way for the withdrawal of a significant share of troops from Afghanistan, following which US Defense Secretary, in November, announced plans to halve the troops to 2500 by January 2021. In the recent address, Joe Biden announced that the US would be unable to meet the May 1st deadline as laid down in the agreement but instead the troops would retreat completely by September 11, 2021.

Implications and the way ahead for India

The withdrawal of the US, as well as NATO troops from Afghanistan, has become a matter of great concern for the South Asian countries, especially India, who are wary of the resurgence of the Taliban and the country again becoming a haven for terrorists. In the late 1990s, when Afghanistan was under Taliban control, the country welcomed militants and terrorists of all stripes to train, recruit and fundraise in Afghanistan, including those involved in the 2001 Parliament attack and the hijacking of an Indian airliner in 1999. The presence of the US, NATO and ISAF troops on ground checked such mis-adventurism to a great degree. However, the withdrawal of troops is bound to increase the likelihood of such practices gaining traction again, which is why India has not been particularly appreciative of this move but has accepted it for the sake of the greater good. In light of the withdrawal of troops, India might use its role in the regional efforts to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan to ensure that the Afghan territory cannot be used by anti-India forces.

Arindam Bagchi, MEA spokesperson recently said, “We have noted the decision of the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan to end its military operations here. We are closely following the ongoing intra-Afghan peace progress. Afghan people have seen more than four decades of war and unrest and deserve long-lasting peace and development.” India is already playing an active role in working with the Afghan stakeholders, alongside the regional and international partners in deciding the next steps after the withdrawal. In an official statement from the MEA, India reiterated its support for the peace process to be ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled’ which is reflective of its aim to strengthen the Afghan government and forces to maintain peace and stability in the nation.  India can find an opportunity amidst the US pullout by deciding to take up the slack in the training of the Afghan army by ramping up its existing programs and training them in using special forces, missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

The changing dynamics of the Afghan state will not only have implications for its future but will weigh on the future of China, India, Russia and other regional powers. Like in the past, when India maintained a studious silence in committing troops on the ground in the US-led military coalition, it has so far been the most reticent to join the rush to embrace the Taliban. While its domestic compulsions and regional rivalries amid the coronavirus pandemic have prevented it from forcefully confronting the possibility of a Taliban return to power; it may not be able to maintain this calibrated indifference for long, especially in the event of an impending state collapse in Afghanistan. In the absence of international military personnel, these regional players will now have to evolve a more sui generis approach committed towards ensuring an enduring peace in Afghanistan while being cognizant of the peculiarities of the Afghan nation-state.

For a nation that shares historical association and a 106 km long border through the Wakhan Corridor, India must exercise greater military vigil and diplomatic tact as Afghanistan passes through yet another vicissitude in its troubled history. Qua Afghanistan, India may now have to cease viewing its involvement through the prism of domestic policy compulsions and also move beyond the traditional hyphenation of Af-Pak. The two decades of US-led efforts at nation-building will soon be put to test; while others may argue, and quite ironically so, that nation-building might just be about to begin. Notwithstanding, for India the lessons from the interplay of history and geography are all too obvious to ignore. We may do so only at our own peril.

Amisha Singh is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University and is pursuing her Bachelors in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

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