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As US President Joe Biden announced the pullback of remaining US troops from Afghanistan by 11th September (the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks), the region’s political circles have been set abuzz due to the possibilities it creates for the future. For starters, this is a delay from the 1st May deadline agreed to in the Doha Accord between the US and the Taliban. Taliban has been quick to point that out, and recently Taliban’s political spokesperson Muhammad Naeem Wardak asserted that the US would be responsible now for all the consequences of this backtracking. Another distinguishing factor is how this pullback does not have any strings attached, which would have forced the Taliban to enter into negotiations regarding power-sharing with the government of Ashraf Ghani. Recently, the Taliban also backed out from the Istanbul International Peace Conference majorly for these reasons.
Now, where does it leave Afghanistan? The Long War Journal estimates that while 19% of districts are in Taliban’s control, another 32% are held by government forces, leaving the rest as contested. Taliban is more potent than it has been in the last two decades, and government forces have been losing ground at a quick pace. After the withdrawal, there is a strong possibility that the Taliban may launch a frontal attack on the government to establish the Islamic Emirate. They also rejected Ghani’s offer to resign before the end of his term in favor of fresh elections, where Taliban could freely contest, claiming that elections are UnIslamic. What then has kept the Taliban at the table is the realization that even after troop withdrawal, the US would be under domestic pressure not to abandon Afghanistan. Similarly, there is pressure from other influential powers in the region.
As much as the Pakistani deep state longs for a friendly ‘Taliban’ regime to increase its ‘strategic depth’, it realizes that any violent conflict might lead to civil war, resulting in a huge refugee influx in its already ailing and covid-struck economy. It already has over 1 million Afghan refugees. China has little experience in Afghanistan and might settle for a pro-Pakistan ‘Taliban’ regime, but this comes with its downsides of risking support to separatist calls from Uyghur Muslims in its restive Xinjiang province. Iran is one regional state with considerable leverage due to a long land border and its strong opposition to ‘Taliban’ considering their experiences of the 1996-2001 phase and the more significant theological Shia-Sunni divide. Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif totally rejected the idea of Afghanistan going back to the Islamic Emirate. Russia, too, seems to be exploring its options though neither the Taliban nor the Government are too inclined towards them. Saudi Arabia and UAE being the only two countries, along with Pakistan, who recognized the Taliban regime in its earlier phase, are looking back at regaining influence. Turkey and Qatar have also become important players, which becomes evident from the locations of the two summits being in Doha and Istanbul.
India is in a unique position concerning the current situation. It has no direct antagonism with any of the sides but indeed prefers the civilian government for multiple reasons. Taliban is often perceived as an extension of the ISI, and the 1999 flight IC 814 hijack and the role of Taliban have had a severe impact on the minds of Indian policymakers. There are further concerns that the Taliban may provide a safe haven to anti-India terrorist organizations like LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad. The current Talibani representatives on their part have stated that their territory will not be used to interfere in any other country’s internal affairs. However, the legitimacy of this statement is doubtful considering the deep sway that ISI and its Haqqani network have on the Taliban and the extent to which the latter are capable of taking independent decisions. Despite all this, the Taliban recognize the soft power and image that India has in the minds of Afghan citizens due to its massive investment in development works. Since 2001, India has invested over USD 3 Billion in development projects in Afghanistan. Unlike some other regional players, India has not sent boots on the ground or directly interfered.
The Afghan government has been too cozy with New Delhi because of the developmental assistance, diplomatic support, and shared animosity towards Pakistan. Until recently, India has maintained that the Afghan Peace Process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan controlled. This line goes clearly in favor of Kabul, and indeed, India has taken a firm line at times to ensure that the government remains strong.
Nevertheless, as new realities emerge among the complexities of the Afghan battlefield, India needs to act dynamically and be flexible in its approach. It cannot hope that the status quo would survive and may have to deal with the Taliban and the various challenges possibilities they bring with them. As regional dynamics go for a toss, an assertive and proactive South Block needs to do away with past hesitancies and move forward with a renewed yet careful approach to this neighbor.