The clock is ticking for Afghanistan. There is still no clarity on what the situation will be once the May 1 deadline for US and NATO troop withdrawal ends. The Taliban is straining on a leash, impatient to get back Kabul, which it lost following the US invasion 20 years ago. Though none of the main actors – the United States, NATO and the government in Kabul – is saying it, the fact is the Taliban has won the marathon conflict. By some accounts, the longest war the US has fought anywhere.
For India, the return of the Taliban will be a further setback to the Narendra Modi government’s already tattered foreign policy in the neighbourhood. Once the Taliban is back in the saddle in Kabul, even if in a power-sharing arrangement, the balance of power in Afghanistan squarely shifts in favour of Pakistan.
The Taliban has claimed it will be different this time. But, unless that is seen in practice, the chances are that such assertions are merely rhetorical to make the Islamic group acceptable and get legitimacy from across the board.
The Taliban’s link to, and dependence on, Pakistan cannot be understated. In the early 1990s, it was Pakistan that incubated the Taliban and backed it all the way to power in Afghanistan at a time when the country teetered on becoming a failed state following the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. Later, when the US was determined to destroy the Taliban for its association and support to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda, it was Pakistan’s support that helped the Islamic group survive.
Despite pressure from successive US governments, the then government of Pervez Musharraf did not really go after the Taliban, except on occasions when it arrested a few leaders to keep Washington at bay.
During the tenure of the Taliban government in the 1990s, India, which had historically been close to governments in Afghanistan, found itself out in the cold. There was little by way of relationship between the two. The infamous 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight and the sanctuary given by the Taliban in Kandahar to the pro-Pakistan perpetrators reflected the equations between the three countries. India had to release at least three terrorists in exchange for the passengers.
A couple of years later, the dethroning of the Taliban proved to be an unexpected blessing for India, and the balance of power once again shifted in New Delhi’s favour. Since then, India’s footprint in Afghanistan has spread extensively with aid worth $ 120 million spread across 577 projects between 2005-21, much of it flowing in for the reconstruction of the bombed out nation including infrastructure projects and for a variety of other programmes in areas of education and humanitarian assistance. It had five consulates across the country, of which two were shut last year due to security concerns and the spread of COVID.
Pakistan, which was marginalised in Afghanistan, vented its anger at the growing Indian clout since 2001. The 2008 bombing on the Indian consulate in Kabul and another blast at the Jalalabad consulate five years later and other more recent attacks on Indian targets have been linked to Pakistan’s security establishment.
Successive US governments, over time, realised that Pakistan was only putting up a show of arresting the Taliban. For instance, a frustrated Trump administration cut $800 billion in military aid in 2018. Trump tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Though the US resorted to cutting aid, bringing down weapons exports and restricted its ties with Pakistan, it did not result in any significant shift in Islamabad’s support to the Taliban.
Pakistan was caught in its own dilemma. Even face-saving restrictions on the Taliban proved counter-productive with sections of the group resorting to terror attacks within the country. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was an outcome of the establishment’s half-hearted attempts to curb its activities.
In Afghanistan, despite the use of extensive firepower, the US was unable to consolidate its gains after the removal of the Taliban government. Backed by sections of the security establishment across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban has managed to retain control over several provinces of Afghanistan including Helmand, Ghazni, Farah and Sar-e-Pul.
The US-led international troops in Afghanistan, meanwhile, did not do enough to win the trust and support of common Afghans on the street. Drone strikes (an estimated 13,023 over 16 years killing over 10,000 people), killing of at least 26,000 Afghan children since 2005 and persecution of Afghans on suspicion of being close to the Taliban has over the years alienated the government in Kabul and its US-NATO backers.
When former US president Donald Trump announced peace deal in Doha, Qatar, last February with the Taliban (without consulting the Afghan government) and withdrew most of the troops from Afghanistan, it was not as if the administration was doing so in the interests of peace. The US had bled heavily in terms of its resources to set up a non-Taliban government in Kabul.
According to the US Defence Department, around $800 billion has been spent on the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001. At its height, in 2010-12, there were not less than 1,20,000 US soldiers in that country.
The peace talks have been heavily skewed in favour of the Taliban. The Islamic group has rejected a key condition, that of laying down arms. However, it promised to stop violence that has continued sporadically. But the US has soldiered on in the hope that it can extract a face-saving compromise and move out of Afghanistan.
The Abdul Ghani government has repeatedly entreated the US forces to stay on until the Taliban agrees to some of the key conditions including contesting elections. Trump, just before he left office, withdrew most of the troops from Kabul, placing the present incumbent Joe Biden with a difficult decision. At present, there are 7,500 NATO and 2,500 US troops in the country.
India’s concerns over the return of the Taliban, not surprisingly, hardly find any place in the calculations of the US or the peace-makers. Unless Biden bites the bullet, calls off the peace talks and increases troop presence in Afghanistan, it increasingly looks like the Taliban will be back in the saddle after May.
At most, Biden is expected to go in for a review of the Doha peace talks. That could delay the inevitable. But sooner or later, the US will have to go home and the Taliban has to be accommodated into the Afghan power structure.
Once that happens, it is a matter of time before the incumbent Abdul Ghani government in Kabul – weak by all accounts – is replaced entirely by the Taliban. For India, that would mean the return of an old headache into the neighbourhood.