A popular forward going around in WhatsApp says “If you ever feel useless, just remember USA took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.”
One cannot quarrel with this perception, for that is how it has unravelled. People outside the United States, who have an exalted perception of the “gringo” (or, the white man) as Latin Americans put it, must be wondering why US President Joe Biden withdrew his troops from Afghanistan only to subject himself to ridicule.
The answer is short and simple, and one that holds out an immediate lesson for India. It is that Biden pulled out US troops in his country’s interest. Nothing more, nothing less.
In a revealing explanation to fellow Americans following the withdrawal, Biden said “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interests of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.”
That the US had all but occupied the country for 20 long years and, still, nothing had changed when it withdrew on August 15 did not matter at all to the Biden administration. If the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan and imposed its restrictive ideology on its citizens, so be it. That was Biden’s message. It was up to the Afghans to fight it out and work towards a more just and moderate society.
The Americans had invited its allies from around the world to invest in Afghanistan, with one of the big beneficiaries being India. But in the hour of reckoning India, or for that matter, the interests of its European allies did not matter. India, for instance, has invested some $3 billion over the last two decades, but with the Taliban’s return all this is up in the air.
What this essentially shows is that any country that excessively depends on another, in this case the US, sooner or later is bound to come to grief – especially if American interests come into play and overrides the interests of the other country, even if they are friends.
For India, which is today struggling to assert itself in South Asia and is desperate to make a mark globally, the neighbourhood has turned treacherous, especially its relations with China. Since May 2020, Beijing has been needling India on the fluid border between the two, across the Himalayas. Fighting too took place in June 2020, in the Galwan valley, taking a toll of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese counterparts.
At the moment, talks are on and disengagement has been taking place between the two countries across at least four flashpoints in the Ladakh region. But there is no guarantee that another round of jostling by China will not happen and what the outcome of that will be.
With China emerging as the new big power, India is increasingly wary of what the government in Beijing will do, given that the balance of power is now tilted in favour of the Chinese.
In this context, the Quad has helped India psychologically as the understanding is that in an extreme event the member countries led by the US and including Japan and Australia will come to its support.
See video: Two decades of US bungling in Afghanistan
While it may well be that the Quad will function as a pressure lobby, it is far-fetched to expect any of the three to go out of its way and intervene in India’s dispute with China. If India leans excessively on the Quad, it could be detrimental to its interests as China is no pushover. Moreover, it could view the Quad, and India by extension, as hostile.
The Afghan lesson for India is that the government in New Delhi, among other things, must actively engage with China on its own terms and independently try come to a negotiated settlement regarding the border dispute.
Already by unquestioningly following the US, in recent years, India has lost out significantly in its relations with traditional friends like Iran. For example, the gas pipeline project between Iran and India via Pakistan, called the peace pipeline, that was much anticipated some years ago was derailed under US pressure.
For the US, which has its own bone to pick with Iran, it was necessary to impose sanctions on Tehran and ensure that this was complied with by its allies, including India. For India, Iran was a much trusted supplier of oil and over the years had received several favourable deals for purchase. Politically too, Iran in global Islamic forums generally backed India on ticklish issues like Kashmir.
But by allowing itself to get arm-twisted by the US, India not only drastically decreased oil imports from Iran, but also voted against Tehran on the nuclear issue at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Over time, Iran in retaliation has diluted its relationship with India and the beneficiary has been China. For example, India is out of the Chabahar project and China has all but taken its place.
Similarly, under US pressure, India downgraded its strong, traditional ties with Russia with the result that Moscow in retaliation struck a substantial relationship with Pakistan. The signal it sends to India is that New Delhi is no longer Moscow’s only important friend in South Asia.
More is to come on this front. The US is applying pressure on New Delhi not to go through with the proposed deal to buy the state of the art S-400 missile system from Russia. The US has already imposed sanctions on Turkey for defying Washington and signing a deal with Moscow for the missile system.
India is caught in a foreign policy jam. If it obliges the US, its relationship with Moscow will be irreparably ruined. On the other hand, if it goes ahead with the S-400 missile deal it is bound to antagonise Washington, with its own set of negative implications.
But given the current world order and the self-centric big powers, particularly exemplified by the US, it would be in Indian interests to bite the bullet and take calls that favour its interests rather than obliging purported friends and disadvantaging itself.
This is easier said than done but not impossible. If India defies the US, for instance, on specific international issues like how it relates to Iran there will be a price to pay. Or, for that matter, on the S400 deal if there are threats of sanctions, New Delhi should still go ahead with it if it is in the country’s interests. If that turns out to have painful consequences, it may still be worth it as that could be the starting point of an assertive India in international affairs.
The other more crucial foreign policy manoeuvre India would need to do is approach the Taliban government and attempt to strike a bilateral relationship without waiting for US validation.
The status of Kashmir, as part of India, has been a red rag for the Taliban in the past. Whether there is a change in its position will be known soon. Reports quoting unnamed Taliban sources have said that the Islamic group views Kashmir as an “internal and bilateral issue”. This still needs to be confirmed by a public statement from the top leadership.
However, even in a situation where the Taliban rakes up the Kashmir issue, that alone should not stop India for striking a relationship with the prodigal Afghan group. How well India succeeds will be the marker that decides whether New Delhi has finally arrived, when it comes to furrowing an independent path in foreign policy.