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In the later phase of his administration, former President Trump had expressed his desire of sending the American troops “back home for Christmas”. The Doha conference of 2020, arranged after much legwork was done silently by the diplomats, showed that his intention was genuine. US Government planners felt that continuing the two-decade-old war in Afghanistan was no longer a priority in the wake of changing political alignments on a global level. Several years ago when the US first decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001 to make Al Qaeda pay the price for 9/11, a recently retired Chinese military officer at the Central Party School had said that his “colleagues marvelled at how the United States was wasting its assets”.
As Vice President in the Obama administration, Biden had not been quite sure about the wisdom of tackling the Al Qaeda menace the way the US did in Afghanistan. But when NATO was roped in to function as the face of anti-Al Qaeda campaign against the Afghan Taliban, perhaps the broad thinking at that time was that some pretense of democratic dispensation needed to be kept in Afghanistan; otherwise the rationale for offering support to the Mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets would become brittle.
In the beginning, President Biden was somewhat uncertain about Trump’s plan of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. Moreover, he was also sceptical about the success of the Doha agreement because soon after signing it, the Taliban had begun attacking the government forces in the eastern province of Kunduz.
President Trump had set May 1, 2021, as the deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. As this date was approaching, eyes were fixed on the White House. How would his successor Biden act? Only a few days back, the White House announced that US troops would leave by 11 September 2021 in commemoration of the anniversary of 9/11 twenty years ago. The suspense was over and the stakeholders are now clear about the policy of the US in Afghanistan. It is for them to seriously ponder the scope and feasibility of re-alignment of forces and readjustment of the balance of power in the region.
Endorsing the US’ announcement, NATO came out with a statement that it would also pull out its 9600 troops including 2500 Americans from May 1. It will take several months till withdrawal is complete. The German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, referring to NATO, told the German television station ARD: “We always said: ‘We’ll go in together, we’ll leave together.’ I am for an orderly withdrawal and that is why I assume that we will agree to that today.”
She added that NATO allies had been waiting for Mr Biden to decide on a withdrawal deadline and had consultations with U.S. officials. It was important now, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said, “for us in NATO to synchronize our planning with the U.S. planning.”
It appears that the Pentagon had suggested a conditional withdrawal but President Biden rejected the proposal, saying that putting conditions would give the impression that ‘we intend to stay on’ which means negation of the new policy.
Commentators say that the Taliban feel convinced that in terms of territorial gains they have the upper hand and as such, they could continue with their hard-line stand of no negotiations until all foreign forces are out from Afghanistan.
The more baffling aspect of the Afghan crisis is that the promise of intra-Afghan talks suggested in the Doha agreement shows no progress on the ground. Talks within the warring groups of Afghans viz. the Taliban and the ruling party have made no headway so far despite the Kabul government having fulfilled the Taliban’s pre-condition by freeing thousands of prisoners from detention. This puts the prospect of peace under a scanner. Despite efforts made by agencies concerned, the rapprochement of sorts among the warring Afghans has not come about.
Afghanistan has also suffered and continues to suffer owing to the dynamics of regional strategies. In particular, the role of her immediate eastern neighbour has been usually highlighted. Because of deep-seated animus against India, Pakistan, under the pretext of threat to her security, has long sought ‘strategic depth’ westward. However instead of reaching out to the current Afghan leadership for allaying her alleged India-centric apprehensions, Pakistan aligned with the radical Taliban fighters, especially the Haqqani group, which have attacked the government and the NATO forces and have targeted Indian commercial and diplomatic establishments to scare them away. It is to be noted that India is the largest contributor to the infrastructural development of Afghanistan whereas Pakistan is averse to India’s presence in the region.
The US adopted a stick and carrot policy towards Pakistan. While accusing her of not doing more to contain terrorism at home, the US welcomes Pakistan’s supposedly useful role by motivating the Taliban for peace talks. When the Doha talks took place, Pakistan loudly claimed the credit and the US conceded. Under the Biden administration, Defence Secretary Austin also voiced appreciation for Pakistan’s positive role in the Afghan crisis.
Justifying his decision to bring troops home by September 11, President Biden says that the story of 2001 needs to be closed while that of 2021 is looking into our eyeball. What does that mean? The thinking is that Afghanistan does not pose any real threat to US security at home. As such, its priority status can be downgraded in comparison to new threats that have sprung on a global level. The rise of China as a formidable challenge to the economic leadership of the US and its belligerent stance in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, the assertive policies of Russia, Iran’s drive for accelerated enriched uranium, and North Korea’s recalcitrance are issues of high priority that invite the attention of the US.
As a consequence, the entire Asian and Indo-Pacific region, in particular, is passing through an unprecedented phase of commotion. For not allowing the conditions in Afghanistan to deteriorate critically after the withdrawal of the US troops, Biden has called an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the United Nations. A conference of regional powers called by Turkey has not materialised owing to Iran’s refusal to participate in the wake of the Israeli bombing of the Natanz nuclear plant. The Taliban have declined to attend the Turkey conference as long as all foreign troops are not withdrawn.
India has moved closer to the US camp and is under pressure from Washington not to go in for the S-400 purchase deal from Moscow. After completing his two-day visit to New Delhi, Russian foreign minister Lavrov spent two days in Islamabad meeting with the PM and the Army Chief as well. Eurasian Times wrote that while in New Delhi, Lavrov talked about Covid-19 and energy etc. in Islamabad he put Russian weapons on the table for General Bajwa, the Pakistani Chief of Military Staff to make his selection. Pakistan and Russia have also agreed to joint land and naval exercises this summer.
The important question is what will be the ground situation in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal period? US Secretary of State Blinken has sounded an optimistic note saying that ultimately an intra-Afghan peace deal has to emerge. Before the formal announcement of withdrawal, he sent a strongly worded letter to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to exhort him to cooperate with the US’ intentions of “creating drastic changes in the country.” “The Afghanistan Peace Agreement proposes power-sharing with the Taliban and a brand new constitution with increased Islamic oversight, an Islamic Jurisprudence Council with a right to veto over all other laws, and additional unelected Taliban members in parliament”, wrote TRT World of March 11, 2021. Blinken also hinted at an international peace conference to be attended by all stakeholders including Iran and India in Turkey.
Many former US intelligence experts have endorsed the withdrawal policy as desirable in the current situation. Yet they have also advocated for measures that would stonewall Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Afghanistan. Secretary Blinken stated at the NATO Headquarters that American withdrawal did not mean an “end to Americana commitment to Afghanistan which would include aid and advice to the military and the government.” An important question is that of providing security to the American diplomatic staff in Kabul which the US said was taken into account in all its aspects.
This notwithstanding, scepticism has been expressed by some Congressmen and others because Taliban already occupy almost three-fourth of Afghan territory while State forces are probably not capable of stopping their continuing advance. The Taliban welcome the withdrawal and wait to take over if the Ashraf government does not accept their terms. Suggestions for an interim ‘unity’ government have been rejected by the Kabul regime.
While India welcomes a peace initiative of which withdrawal of foreign troops is a component, New Delhi is apprehensive of the safety of its diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan engaged in developmental projects. India has no military involvement in Afghanistan but the dynamics of regional politics is that Pakistan does not want India to figure in the peace process in the region. Nevertheless, ordinary Afghans have tremendous goodwill for the Indians and a long history of cordial relations traceable to the pre-independence era. India’s big worry is that in case the Taliban come to power, the kinship between Afghan and Pakistan Taliban could pose a serious threat to peace and security in Kashmir. That is what Pakistan is looking for.
In the final analysis, American priorities have shifted from the Af-Pak region to the challenges posed by Russia’s assertive stance globally and by the rising role of China as the biggest money-lender and trading partner to developing nations. What remains to be seen is whether the US will succeed, together with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others in bringing about a rapprochement among the warring factions in Afghanistan, something upon which the entire peace process in the region hinges.