US President Joe Biden will now be the fourth president to oversee American military operations in Afghanistan. However, the US- Taliban deal signed in February 2020 and the following intra-Afghan dialogue negotiations are now delicately poised between success and failure, depending on what Biden’s policies are going to be — whether he will continue towards a full withdrawal by May 2021, or decide to keep a residual military presence in the country.
As Biden settles in, the US Treasury Department has already highlighted a new conundrum, that Al-Qaeda has been growing in strength in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Taliban.
‘Keep Talking, Keep Dying...’?
The initial readings of Biden’s approach towards Afghanistan have been blurry. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he still has to see the full details (the annexes) of the US-Taliban deal signed under Trump, Biden has decided to keep Chief Negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad at the helm of the process for now. More worryingly perhaps, the new US Defense Secretary, (retired) Army General Lloyd Austin, appeased Pakistan by acknowledging that the country had taken “constructive steps” to reign on anti-India terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Pakistan instead is only doubling down on its posture in Afghanistan as it supports the Taliban.
According to a report on a phone conversation between Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his Afghan counterpart Hanif Atmar, when the question of increased violence was raised, Qureshi reportedly said that the progress in dialogue “will facilitate reduction in violence, leading to ceasefire.” In other words, ‘keep talking, keep dying, till the point that Islamabad wants to reach’.
US’s Exit From Afghanistan Mired In Confusion
The fact of the matter remains that US’s exit from Afghanistan, where its troop numbers are down to only 2,500, is mired in confused policies and an increased conflict of thought between a realist and a moralist one, both perhaps converging towards the same eventuality.
Some analysts have recommended that the Biden administration should strive for a ‘responsible withdrawal’, which means requiring US troops to be stationed in the country.
Such an eventuality will be unpalatable to the Taliban, which has, thanks to nearly two years of secessionist policies of negotiation tactics by the US, gained an upper hand, already acting as a State-in-waiting for its geographic State, conducting diplomacy, public outreach and even getting to use social media for its propaganda and narrative building at a time when a sitting US president in Donald Trump was banned from doing so.
The Afghanistan Conundrum: India Knows That US Stands On ‘Weaker Ground’
While not many would be against a settlement to bring hostilities to a bare minimum, what has eventually taken place, is that the Taliban has managed to develop a successful two-front strategy, gaining stronger leverage on the negotiating table while simultaneously refusing to commit to a ceasefire, using violence to push its own narratives with both the US and the democratically-elected government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani. Arguably, It has been the Taliban which has been succeeding on almost all fronts in these talks.
While the US was busy with its elections and the long process of transfer of power, India recognised, to a certain degree, that come what may, the US stood on weaker ground.
A steady stream of Afghan politicians have visited New Delhi, including some old connections such as Abdullah Abdullah, Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Atta Mohammed Noor, a reunion of sorts, from the era of the Northern Alliance in the 1990s in Afghanistan which India backed. Indian NSA Ajit Doval’s visit to Kabul earlier in January 2021 capped these series of engagements as New Delhi looked to consolidate both the backing of and power behind the Ghani government.
Can We Count On Islamabad To ‘Deliver On’ Peace Process On Behalf Of US? No
The fact of the matter remains that India today has limited tactical options on how to preserve itself around the question of Afghanistan. As violence, assassinations and targeted attacks against more moderate ecosystems being negotiated with the Taliban takes hold in Kabul and beyond, the Biden administration — surrounded by domestic political strife and a raging Covid-19 pandemic at home — has no option but to give Afghanistan prioritised attention.
A complete withdrawal by May, to end a ‘forever war’, and expecting significant concessions on liberty, democracy, women’s rights and so on from the Taliban would only garner a Presidential Medal of Freedom for naivety in the future.
Banking on Islamabad to deliver on the Taliban and a peace process on behalf of a tired US — including in the form of a compromised republic — is only going to cement an ecosystem for future security threats, specifically for South Asia.
For India, there are currently no easy options, and at least some of this is of its own making. However, an early outreach to the Biden administration on Afghanistan is the need of the hour.
New Delhi Must Have A More Resolute Policy Approach On Afghanistan
Indian public discourse often has misplaced opinions that the only tactical choice for India is to have ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan to aid the Afghan military. This is not an option for New Delhi. However, it is not the only kinetic option India can explore. Capacity-building relies on a certain level of capacity deployment, including when India has challenges with regard to available defence and financial limitation.
And while New Delhi has hinted at increased military aid to Kabul, it must drop its shyness on how it chooses to conduct these transactions.
A more resolute approach on Afghanistan will arrive either as per New Delhi’s policy designs or in the form of reactions forced through by the fast-developing geopolitical circumstances. The former option, of course, would be much more desirable and beneficial.
(Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. He tweets @KabirTaneja. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)