In the later phase of his administration, former President Trump had expressed his desire of sending the American troops “back home for Christmas”. The Doha conference of 2020, arranged after much legwork was done silently by the diplomats, showed that his intention was genuine. There had been some re-thinking among the US planners that continuing the two-decade-old war in Afghanistan has a reduced priority in the wake of changing political alignments on a global level. Several years ago when the US first decided military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 to make the Al Qaeda pay the price for 9/11, a Chinese recently retired military officer at Central Party School had said that his “colleagues marvelled at how the United States was wasting its assets”.
As Vice President in the Obama administration, Biden had not been quite sure about the wisdom of the US in tackling the Al Qaeda menace the way it did in Afghanistan. But when NATO was roped in to function as the face of anti-Al Qaedacampaign against the Afghan Taliban, perhaps the broad thinking at that time was of ensuring that democratic dispensation needed to be protected in Afghanistan, otherwisethe rationale of offering out of proportion support to the Mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviets would become brittle.
In the beginning, President Biden was somewhat uncertainabout Trump’s plan of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. He had reservations about the perpetuation ofdemocratic governance once the US troops left Afghanistan. Moreover, he was also sceptical about the success of the Doha agreement because soon after signing the agreement, the Taliban had begun attacking the government forces in the eastern province of Kunduz.
President Trump had set May 1, 2021, as the deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. As this deadline was approaching, eyes were fixed on the White House how President Biden would react to it. Only a few days back, the White House announced that the US troops would be withdrawn by 11 September 2021 in commemoration of their first arrival in 2001. With that, the suspense is over and the stakeholders are clear about the policy of the US in Afghanistan. It is for them to seriously ponder over the scope and feasibility of re-alignment of forces and readjustment of the balance of power in the region.
Endorsing the US’ announcement, NATO came out with a statement that it would also withdraw its 9600 troops including 2500 Americans and initiate the process on May 1. It would take several months till withdrawal was complete. The German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, referring to NATO, told the German television station ARD: “We always said, ‘We’ll go in together, we’ll leave together.’ I am for an orderly withdrawal and that is why I assume that we will agree to that today.”
She added that NATO allies had been waiting for Mr Biden to decide on a withdrawal deadline and have had consultations with U.S. officials. It was important now, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said, “for us in NATO to synchronize our planning with the U.S. planning.”
With these developments taking shape very fast, the US seniors are pertinent to go through the entire gamut of the changeover to the strategy of unconditional withdrawal. We understand the Pentagon had suggested a conditional withdrawal but President Biden rejected it saying that putting conditions would give the impression that we intend to stay on which means negation of the new policy.
Commentators say that the Taliban feel convinced that in terms of territorial gains they have an upper hand and as such, they could continue with their hard-line stand of no negotiations until all foreign forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan.
The more baffling aspect of the Afghan crisis is that the promise of intra-Afghan talks suggested in the Doha agreement shows no progress on the ground. Talks within the warring groups of Afghans viz. the Taliban and the ruling party have made no headway so far despite the Kabul government had fulfilled the pre-condition of freeing thousands of Taliban prisoners from detention. This puts the prospect of peace under a scanner. Despite efforts made by agencies concerned, the rapprochement of sorts among the warring Afghans has not come about.
Afghanistan has also suffered and continues to suffer owing to the dynamics of regional strategies. In particular, the role of her immediate eastern neighbour in putting peace in jeopardy has been usually highlighted. Because of deep-seated animus against India, Pakistan, under the pretext of threat from India to her security, has been seeking space westward. But instead of reaching the genuine Afghan leadership for alleviating presumed India-centric apprehensions, Pakistan aligned with the radical Taliban leadership, especially the Haqqani group, which has been attacking the government and the NATO forces and particularly targeting Indian commercial and diplomatic establishments to scare them away. It is to be noted that India is the largest contributor to the infrastructural development of Afghanistan and Pakistan is averse to India’s presence in the region.
The US adopted a stick and carrot policy towards Pakistan. While accusing her of not doing more to contain terrorism at home, the US welcomes Pakistan playing a useful role in motivating the Taliban for peace talks. When Doha happened, Pakistan loudlyclaimed the credit and the US conceded. Under the Biden administration, Defence Secretary Austin also appreciatedPakistan playing a positive role in the Afghan crisis.
Justifying his decision of troop withdrawal by September 11, President Biden says that the story of 2001 needs to be closed while that of 2021 is looking into our eyeball. What does thatmean? The thinking is that Afghanistan does not pose any real threat to US home security. In fact the withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan may occur by mid-July 2021. As such,its priority status can be downgraded in comparison to new threats that have sprung on a global level. The rise of China as a formidable challenge to the economic leadership of the US and its belligerent stance in the geographical region including the Indo-Pacific, aggressive policies of Russia like the concentration of troops on the Ukrainian border, Iran’s determination of producing enriched uranium, and North Korean outright anti-US hostility are issues of high priority that invite the attention of the US.
As a consequence, the entire Asian and Indo-Pacific region, in particular, is passing through an unprecedented phase of subdued commotion. For not allowing the conditions in Afghanistan to deteriorate critically after the withdrawal of the US troops, Biden has called an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the United Nations. A conference of regional powers called by Turkey has not materialised owing to Iran’s refusal to participate in the wake of the Israeli bombing of her Natanz nuclear plant. The Taliban have declined to attend the Turkey conference saying that unless all foreign troops are withdrawn they would not participate.
Biden’s decision of withdrawal is also linked to the threatening posture of Moscow which shows that in the task of re-alignment of forces and adjustment in the new order, she would stand in linewith China. Russia has been demonstrating friendship with Pakistan and at the same time, Russian relations with India are not that warm. India has moved close to the US camp and is under pressure from Washington not to go in for the S-400 deal with Moscow. At the same time, India has the chances of becoming a partner in the US-Israel collaboration of producing sophisticated weaponry. After completing his two-day visit to New Delhi, Russian foreign minister Lavrov spent two days in Islamabad meeting with the PM and the Army Chief as well. Eurasian Times wrote that while in New Delhi, Lavrov talked about Covid-19 and energy etc. in Islamabad he put all the weapons on the table for General Bajwa to make his selection. Pakistan and Russia have agreed to joint land and naval exercises this summer.
The important question is what will be the ground situation in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal period? Foreign Secretary Blinken has sounded an optimistic note saying there is no threat to the home security of the US and that ultimately an intra-Afghan peace deal has to emerge. Before the formal announcement of withdrawal, Foreign Secretary had sent a strong-worded letter to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told him to cooperate in the US’ intentions of “creating drastic changes in the country.” “The Afghanistan Peace Agreement proposes power-sharing with the Taliban and a brand new constitution with increased Islamic oversight, an Islamic Jurisprudence Council with a right to veto over all other laws, and additional unelected Taliban members in parliament”, wrote TRT World of March 11, 2021. In the meanwhile, the Secretary of State also hinted at an international conference on peace in Afghanistan to be attended by all stakeholders including Iran and India in Turkey.
Many former US intelligence experts have endorsed the withdrawal policy as desirable in the current situation. Yet they have also advocated for measures that would stonewall Al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan that might pose threat to American homeland security. Secretary Blinken said at the NATO Headquarter that American withdrawal did not mean an “end to Americana commitment to Afghanistan which would include aid and advice to the military and the government.” An important question is that of providing security to the American diplomatic staff in Kabul which the US said was taken into account in all its aspects.
This notwithstanding, scepticism has been expressed by some Congressmen and others that Taliban are in occupation of almost three-fourth of Afghan territory and there are bleak chances of State forces capable of stopping their more success on the ground. Taliban may welcome the withdrawal as this is their condition and then wait for taking over if the Ashraf government does not accept their terms. Chances for an interim government have been rejected by the Kabul regime.
While India welcomes a peace initiative of which withdrawal of foreign troops is a component, New Delhi is apprehensive of the safety of its diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan engaged in developmental projects. These projects are vulnerable to the attacks of the Taliban especially of the Haqqani group who have been leading attacks on Indian assets on the prompting of Pakistan. India has no military involvement in Afghanistan but the dynamics of regional politics is that Pakistan does not want India to figure in the peace process in the region. India was not invited to the Afghan Peace conference called by Russia. Nevertheless, ordinary Afghans have tremendous goodwill for the Indians and their cordial relations have a long history traceable to the pre-independence era. India’s big worry is that in the case of Taliban ascension to power, a camaraderie between Afghan and Pakistan Taliban could pose a serious threat to security in Kashmir. That is what Pakistan is looking for.
In the final analysis, we find that American priority has shifted from the Af-Pak region to the challenges posed by Russia’s assertive stance on a global level and the rising crescendo of China as the money-lender for the Third World. Of course, in this new global political scenario democracy is threatened by a new type of eco-military unilateralism. France and Germany have recently said that they are with the US in their decision of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. It means that they would share the consequences of the withdrawal if these turn to be adverse. What remains to be watched is whether the US will succeed at the last moment in bringing about a rapprochement of sorts among the warring factions in Afghanistan something uponwhich the entire peace process in the region hinges.