India’s Security Role in Afghanistan Must Increase Amid US Pullout

India hesitated to put its boots on the ground to complement its Afghan outreach. But circumstances have changed.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of India & Afghanistan’s flags (background) and Afghan Taliban used for representational purposes.
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On 13 April 2021, US President Joseph Biden finally answered when — and not whether — about ending his nation’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan. In the spirit of the Doha Accord (29 February 2020), about 10,000 of its and NATO’s troops will be withdrawing from 1 May, and end before 11 September, twenty years to the day marking Al Qaeda’s attacks on US mainland.

The decision is ‘etched in stone’ and without any conditions attached. Waving the white flag, the US is evacuating — lock, stock and barrel.Biden appeared satisfied with vague Taliban assurances that Afghan soil will not be used to launch terrorist attacks against the US and break ties with Al Qaeda.

He refused to buy into fears of civil war, capture of state institutions, loss of democratic gains and human rights, collapse of the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANSDF) — and even his own intelligence community’s assessments predicting gloom and doom.

What A ‘Distracted’ US Should Have Done Over 20 Years

Over the last 20 years, the US could have still rid the world of the Taliban and its brand of terrorism and obscurantist ideology, if it had looked for them in the right place and not been ‘distracted’ by democracy and developmental issues.

The US knew that the global terror epicentre had shifted to Pakistan after 2001. They were aware of:

  • the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) backing the Taliban even in CT operations launched jointly by US and Pakistani armies
  • where Taliban leaders were sheltering
  • location and leadership hierarchies of the shuras
  • training camps inside Pakistan
  • ISI arming Talib foot-soldiers
  • hospitals where wounded Taliban were being treated, etc
The US had the wherewithal to take the battle to Pakistan and ensure true victory for the Afghan people. Tragically, for whatever reason, successive US governments accepted that it was in their self-interest to continue to cooperate with the Pakistani Army despite such open perfidy.

On the contrary, beggaring disbelief, the Pakistan Army enriched its coffers by facilitating NATO supplies via Karachi, and through perfunctory cooperation was able to convince the US that Pakistan is ‘indispensable’ to the ‘war on terror’.

The NYT story (16 April 2021) citing former ISI head Gen Hamid Gul, that “ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America” and “ISI, with the help of America, defeated America” — is the epitaph that will be written on Operation Enduring Freedom and its inglorious closure.

All Eyes On 2021 Ankara Peace Conference

What happens next? The focus is on waiting for Taliban to agree to attend the US-initiated, UN-led regional peace conference to take place in Ankara from 24 April - May. Some reports have emerged that the Taliban have rejected Biden’s decision and demanded that all foreign forces leave by 1 May as agreed at Doha. They also are asserting that their goal is not about power-sharing, but the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).

These could be negotiating positions prior to talks.

Uppermost in the Taliban’s calculation would be to be seen as legitimate, unlike in 1996. At Ankara, intra-Afghan talks — where the Taliban will be just one entity — are going to be acrimonious and protracted. The US is leaving whether these talks succeed or not. What gives some semblance of hope is that the Taliban is now endorsed by Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China to arrive at this power-sharing agreement. It is now time for these countries to take the heft.

Can Pakistan Broker Peace?

There is now renewed anticipation that Pakistan can, at least, get the Taliban to agree to an eventual agreement to be decided by the Afghans themselves.

Pakistan has been attempting for some time to wriggle out of their responsibility by insisting there are ‘limits’ to its leverage over the group.

The UN, Russia, China, Iran should not buy into this obvious canard.

US Troops to Withdraw: India’s Stance

The pullout will be seen in New Delhi as a sellout. The United States’ parting gift to India is a seat at the Ankara talks. Little wonder that India has only ‘noted’ the US decision and reiterated its mantra that the solution should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process. Chief of Defence Services (CDS) General Bipin Rawat (retd), on 15 April, spoke about the “vacuum that is going to be created” — which seems to suggest that India was hoping that the US will not exit. It also hinted at a degree of unpreparedness.

India’s biggest apprehension is that Taliban, a Pakistani asset, would permit use of their land to export jihadi terrorism. Afghan leaders opposed to the Taliban have constantly reinforced these fears.

What Are India’s Options?

  • Recognise the Taliban as one more outfit in the Afghan landscape competing for power. Those in the strategic community would know that when the Taliban was in power in Kabul in 1997-2001, despite all the Pakistani pressure applied on them, the IEA refused to recognise the Durand Line. The Taliban are still Afghans, and agents have cocked-a-snook at their ‘handlers’ in the past as those in the business will know. Those interested can read the book My Life With the Taliban written by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan. His contempt for Pakistan while conducting official diplomatic business was an eye-opener when a few translated pages were available to read.
  • Revitalise relations with other ethnic leaders, warlords, erstwhile Mujahideen and Northern Alliance leaders. Since 2001, in the context of bringing democracy, concepts like ‘warlordism’ and ‘tribalism’ have acquired negative connotations whereas they are still very much part of Afghan society. India, at the Ankara talks, should not be seen as a ‘spoiler’ but as a genuine friend of the entire spectrum of Afghans, and encourage settlement.
  • India has been hesitant to put its boots on the ground to complement its Afghan outreach. The Indian political leadership and Army may have their valid reasons for not wanting to do so, but circumstances have changed. If possible, there must be now a visible increase in India’s role in security-related issues in Afghanistan, starting with aiding the ANSDF, especially training its officer corps.
  • By their own admission (and not denied by India), the UAE is already ‘mediating’ between India and Pakistan. The UAE and Pakistan were two countries (Saudi Arabia being the third) that recognised the IEA in 1996. I don’t see why UAE cannot bring Afghanistan into this equation. The UAE may find it easier to mediate between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, than on Jammu & Kashmir. India must keep the ceasefire option open on the LoC. If there is a hint that its interests in Afghanistan are getting compromised, then the cost Pakistan must pay on its eastern border should be made that much higher. It cannot have it both ways.

(S Ramesh served as Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat. He can be reached at @shanramesh1459. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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