US pullout from Afghanistan: 5 top diplomats weigh in on New Delhi’s options

As the Americans plan troop withdrawal in a frenzy from a volatile region, what it means for India, Kashmir, and South Asia

Ten years after waging war against the Taliban, and another 10 years of vows to withdraw from Afghanistan, the United States under President Joe Biden finally set September 11, 2021, as the deadline for a full troop exit from the country.

Sources in the Afghan capital Kabul suggest that US generals are rushing to not just meet the deadline, but complete the withdrawal, maybe as early as mid-July.

When Biden became the President, he inherited a US withdrawal from Afghanistan to signal the end of the 20-year war that claimed 2,400 American lives without showing a clear win in return.

Arguably, the new US President had no options for a manoeuvre other than to announce a withdrawal. The new administration was quick to declare that all 3,500 US troops would pull out by September 11, the anniversary of the attack on the twin towers and Pentagon.

The decision was a follow-up of former President Donald Trump government’s headlong plunge to sign a deal at Doha with the Taliban that paved the way for the extraction of all forces by May 1.

In doing so, US negotiators side-lined the Afghan government and overlooked sane advice by several experts who warned that the Taliban only had to make vague counterterrorism promises in return, which needless to say, they had no intentions of honouring.

Experts believe that the future under Taliban dispensation does not augur well for peace and stability of the country and the region. The Taliban have not shown the slightest change of heart since they lost power in 2001. Many of the potential leaders in a Taliban government have spent years in captivity in Guantánamo Bay and are unlikely to shed their trauma to turn a new leaf.

The critical question for New Delhi is what happens next? Over the past two decades, India has steadfastly opposed any parleys with the Taliban.

Lately, it appears that the Indian foreign affairs establishment has readjusted its position to accommodate the new reality. The point is whether it is too little and too late, or whether it was even ever feasible?

Recently speaking in Tajikistan, the External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar supported talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The benefit to India from such an interaction between the incumbent Afghan government and the Taliban is obvious. Successive Afghan governments have shown an affinity for India in sharp contrast to their orientation towards Pakistan.

Critically, of course, how long would the Afghanistan government survive once the Americans quit, to leave things in the hands of the Taliban?

India has a strategic stake in Afghanistan’s future. A friendly-to-neutral Afghanistan obviates the ‘strategic depth’ of the Pakistani military establishment’s dreams. Over the years, India has invested a great deal in infrastructure, education, power generation and irrigation development.

ANN talked to five top diplomats to make sense of India’s options at this crucial stage South Asia.

anwal Sibal, Former Foreign Secretary, India

What impact will the US pullout from Afghanistan have on India?

Very bad, I am afraid. The Taliban tail is up. It is wreaking havoc all over the place, killing at will. This is accompanied by Pakistani belligerence and Taliban links with the extremists. The Afghan Army has lost its will to fight and the US is not bothered anymore. In any case, Russia and the USA are too far from the scene of action. India is sandwiched in between and will have to cope up with the Taliban and Pakistan combine.

Could it affect Kashmir?

It will certainly give a fillip to the extremist elements in Kashmir. Already there are drone attacks and the rest starting to happen in the area. India must be extremely careful.

Do you agree with those who say that India should have cultivated the Taliban?

That’s complete nonsense. It would mean that India changes its position on terrorism. It would mean that India begins to distinguish between good and bad terrorists. It is a highly defeatist attitude. And why should the Taliban talk to India? Remember how it brought down the Bamiyan Buddhas.

G Parthasarathy, veteran diplomat and former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan

How is the US pullout going to impact this region?

It is a difficult situation for India but let us wait and watch. Much will depend on how the Indian government tackles the situation. The Taliban is largely Pashtun, which is about 35 percent of the population of Afghanistan. Most of that country is not Taliban; there are Hazaras and the other tribes, who are anti-Taliban. If need be, India must back the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, as we have done in the past. The Iranians are Shia and have no love lost for the Taliban. So, we do have allies in the region; it depends on how we play our cards.

What about Pakistan and its role here?

It would be instructive to remember that Pakistan too has its Pashtun problem. The Taliban, for instance, does not recognize the Durand Line. (The Durand Line is the 2,640-km border between Afghanistan and Pakistan).  So, it is not a cakewalk for anti-India elements, as much as it may appear. Taliban has taken some areas in Afghanistan, but not all.

Could India have mended fences with the Taliban, as some seem to suggest?

I personally dealt with Taliban diplomats during the Indian Airlines Kandahar hijack. They are devious. So, the answer is No. – Vivek Katju, former Secretary (West), Ministry of External Affairs, ex-Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan

How do you see the Taliban coming to power in whatever way in Afghanistan? How does it impact India?

The chances are that the Taliban think that the major powers would deal with them individually to seek their cooperation to restrain, if not control, the groups oriented against them rather than collectively. Ideally, the major powers need to pressure Pakistan to effectively influence the Taliban to follow the path of peace and show a collective front against the Taliban. However, that is unlikely because the contradictions among the major powers find Afghanistan tempting to settle past scores and cause present embarrassment.

Is India well prepared to handle the impact of the US pullout in this region?

It is always prudent for states to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Have Indian security planners done so in Afghanistan? It does not seem so, given their rigidity on not opening direct and open contacts with the Taliban. They have consistently ignored the writing on the wall. They would surely know that the constellation of powers ranged against the Taliban, which gave geographical comfort to India, is simply not there and is unlikely to emerge.

Could India possibly have cultivated the Taliban?

Contacts and discussions do not mean acceptance of their ways or that their professions of not being Pakistan’s stooges should not have been tested. – Pawan Verma, ex-top diplomat, he was part of India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, among other postings

How do you see the US withdrawal from Afghanistan impacting India?

There is little doubt that US withdrawal will lead to turmoil in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a head start over India. Taliban, by its nature and by its ideological orientation, will be ill-disposed towards India. The spillover from Afghanistan may lead to instability in this region and there could be attempts to infiltrate Kashmir and create trouble.

Is India’s attempts to reach out to Kashmir politicians an outcome of these developments in Afghanistan, as an attempt to keep the Americans in good humour, who in turn must listen to Pakistan for their help in clearing out of Afghanistan?

I don’t think so. India’s recent moves in Kashmir is a right step, provided they deliver on their promises. The delimitation exercise should be fair and transparent. As Chanakya noted, you cannot keep the sunlight of democracy away from the people. We have kept the people of Jammu and Kashmir incarcerated for two years and it is time to offer freedom to them. That would help in easing the situation in the Valley and help generate goodwill. – Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, former Indian Ambassador, currently Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House

Where does the US pullout leave India?

Though I am not an expert, my sense is that Indians are better placed than they were some time ago. The level of anxiety seems to have come down in New Delhi. I believe that India has great equity in that country and Afghans are very nationalistic. They prefer equidistance in bilateral relations. Which is why China and Pakistan have not been able to make much headway in Afghanistan.

Indo-Afghan ties have been special.Indeed, they have been. India has invested much in Afghanistan by way of projects and of goodwill. Afghans have been most welcome to India in health tourism projects, for instance, and there are strong people-to-people connections between the two countries.

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