Script: Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Strategic Analyst on American Affairs
The announcement by President Joseph R Biden that the US will withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, will close the chapter on the US’s longest war.
Nonetheless, it will leave Afghanistan and the region in turmoil. There are about 2,500-3,500 US troops in Afghanistan at present, plus a NATO force of under 8,000. A coordinated withdrawal is expected to begin soon. While an all-out power vacuum may not be imminent, instability looms on Afghanistan’s horizon, with endemic corruption, intransigent warlords, political and economic instability and the resurgent Taliban causing anxiety for the hard-earned rights for women.
The US Administration wants a regional conference under the United Nations’ auspices with foreign ministers of six countries – US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India – to discuss a “unified approach” on Afghanistan while the dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan government continues. How far the proposal for a unified approach will be successful remains to be seen. India has supported the call for an Afghan-led, Afghan supported and Afghan controlled peace process.
India is wary of a deadline for troop withdrawal especially as the US roadmap wants a ‘new inclusive government’ with the Taliban. For India, Afghan stability is essential for New Delhi’s ambitions to trade with the energy-rich states in Central Asia and energy diversification. On the other hand, instability would add to threats from terrorist organisations such as Laskhar- e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, which the Indian security establishment already believes to have relocated in large numbers to Afghanistan.
India is working with the US to building achievable sustainable peace in the country. Indian External Affairs Minister has been in talks with his counterpart Secretary of State Blinken and also spoken to US Special Representative Khalilzad. The matter was also raised during the visit of US Defence Secretary Austin’s recent visit to India. Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Mohammed Haneef Atmar, was in New Delhi to discuss the ‘Afghan peace process’. India has been a reticent regional partner to Afghanistan and has invited close to US$ 3 Billion in the country.
The Indian government has over the past decades committed itself to projects related to infrastructure, power, agriculture, health, and education. Indian engineers built the Afghan parliament building, constructed a key port-access road across southern Afghanistan, and repaired major highways linking Kandahar and Kabul.
While NATO capacity-building efforts have struggled, India has successfully trained Afghan teachers, engineers, nurses, and civil servants, amongst others. Indian leaders, drawing on strong personal relationships formed through decades of engagement, enjoy a “cultural fluency” with their Afghan counterparts.
And these achievements are undergirded by India’s considerable “soft power” in Afghanistan, arising from longstanding cultural ties and bolstered by its recent humanitarian assistance. American policymakers recognise that Indian support for Afghanistan’s fledgeling institutions could help win the battle for Afghan hearts and minds, keeping the tide of fundamentalism at bay. The reality for both India and the US is that the Taliban has substantial power in Afghanistan.
The US has also made it clear that it would like to focus on China and Russia. While the US has the advantage of distance to shield it from Afghanistan, given geographical proximity and India’s relations with Afghanistan, in order to remain engaged in Afghanistan in the future, India would have to be actively involved with the US in the peace process to ensure the foundations of sustainable peace are laid.