Afghanistan’s shifting sands

US’ second thoughts

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 27, 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) takes the stage after being introduced by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. - US

When it comes to Afghanistan, nothing is what it seems. After signalling his intent to withdraw American troops completely from Afghanistan for months now, US President Donald Trump has indicated that he may have something else in his mind. Responding to press queries on the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Trump suggested that there will not be a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, stating that the US has to “have a presence” in the war-torn country. “We will always have intelligence, and we’ll always have somebody there,” Trump said. And with that, he has once again made life difficult for the various stakeholders who were getting excited about a final settlement in Afghanistan.

Last week, he further clarified this position when he stated that the US will keep a permanent presence in Afghanistan, with 8,600 troops, even if a deal is reached with the Taliban. “We’re always going to have a presence,” was his cryptic message. Washington is clearly signalling that its adversaries should not assume that they would have a free hand in Afghanistan as the talks with the Taliban come to a conclusion.

Trump has been clear that he wants to get out of Afghanistan, especially as the US Presidential elections approach. He wants to go to his voters and tell them that he has delivered on a major electoral promise, thereby preparing ground for his re-election next year. And in recent days, there has been speculation that the Taliban and the US are ready to sign a deal, with many expecting a formal announcement on troop drawdown soon. But challenges continue to stymie the process. Trump’s revelation that he had invited the Taliban for a meeting at the Camp David retreat but had cancelled it after the Taliban owned up to a bomb blast in Afghanistan, and the Taliban in turn warning that the US would suffer the most for that cancellation, is the latest such challenge.

The Taliban wants a timetable for complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan without which the insurgent group remains adamant that it won’t move forward with intra-Afghan negotiations to discuss a permanent ceasefire and issues related to future political governance. The US made a key concession to the Taliban sometime back when it agreed to direct talks, excluding the Afghan government from the table.

For Washington, it is key that the Taliban agree to prevent transnational terror networks from using Afghan territory to plan and execute terror attacks if the US agrees on troop withdrawal. So, the broad contours of the deal are set with a reduction in US troop levels while the Afghan government and the Taliban seek out a power-sharing arrangement. It is hoped that presidential elections in Afghanistan, scheduled for September 28, would operationalise these arrangements.

However, there is continuing turmoil in Afghanistan and the recent attacks by Islamic State (IS), including the recent suicide bombing of a wedding party that killed 63 Afghan civilians in Kabul, have underscored the challenges on the ground on how far Taliban would be able to tackle IS. In theory, a peace deal between the US and the Taliban would allow the two to tackle IS jointly, but there are many who would worry that the Taliban would first target the Afghan government.

Not surprising, therefore, that Trump has suggested that the US plans to leave behind a “very significant intelligence” force for operations against IS and al-Qaeda, maintaining that Afghanistan remains “a breeding ground” for terrorists. 

What is clear, however, is that Trump’s desire to reduce American military footprint in Afghanistan will create pressure on regional powers to step up their game. India is no exception. Bemoaning the fact that the job against terrorists is being done only by the US some 7,000 miles away, Trump stated that countries like India, Iran, Russia and Turkey would have to fight against terrorists in Afghanistan at some point of time. He is calling for burden-sharing in Afghanistan as, according to him, “other nations currently are making very less efforts against the terrorists in Afghanistan.” There is some validity to these claims. Those in India who are berating New Delhi for becoming marginal in Afghanistan today are the same who have resisted Indian efforts to step up its military profile there. India has done a lot in Afghanistan and there is genuine goodwill for India in the country but when it comes to negotiations about the future power structure, there is no substitute to hard power.

What is equally true, however, is that despite attempts by Pakistan, India cannot be ignored as Afghanistan’s future is decided. As New Delhi showed by revoking Article 370 and ending special status for Jammu and Kashmir, India’s ability to shape the priorities of its neighbours remains quite significant. And when Pakistan desperately tried to link Kashmir and Afghanistan, it was reminded by the Taliban that “linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related.” Pakistan’s inability to think of Afghanistan beyond its ‘strategic depth’ fallacy will ensure that whoever comes to power in Afghanistan will look to New Delhi to safeguard its sovereignty.

India’s Afghanistan policy has seen many twists and turns over the last two decades. We are at an inflection point once again. India should adapt rapidly to the evolving realities and play a role that suits its stature in the wider South Asian region. If a stable and economically robust Afghanistan was in India’s interest in the past, it will continue to be a priority for India in the future as well. America will come and go, but the realities of India’s neighbourhood will remain the same.

(Writer is the Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, and Director, Studies and Head of Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation)

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