Foreign Policy Watch: India-Afghanistan

[op-ed snap] After the inevitable exit


Mains Paper 2: IR| India and its neighborhood- relations.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Basic geographical aspects of Afghanistan, The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process.

Mains level: The newscard discusses US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its impact on India


  • Despite the White House’s spirited denial of reports that it has issued no orders for the pullout of U.S. troops, the course seems set for a thinning of American presence in Afghanistan.
  • S. President Donald Trump had promised this during his campaign, and several advisers have said since then that he is keen to bring back most, if not all, troops before his re-election bid in 2020.


  1. Afghanistan is experiencing political, social and security instability, with extremists taking advantage of the turmoil in the country. The United States and its allies launched a military operation in Afghanistan in 2001, just after the 9/11 terror attacks. The mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014.
  2. On January 1, 2015, NATO announced its new mission in the country, called Resolute Support, to train and assist the Afghan security forces. Despite Washington’s efforts, the Asian state is still being hit by multiple attacks against its civilians and military targets.
  3. “As President, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people, we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future,” said the President of the United States in 2009, announcing a “regional strategy” for Afghanistan after the worst year of the conflict.
  4. President of United States unveiled his new “regional strategy” for Afghanistan, it was in large part a reiteration of the above speech in terms of strategic objectives. By now 2016 has become the worst year of the conflict.

Shift in policy

  1. Mr. Trump had defined the strategy with following features:
  • that U.S. troops would remain involved in the country until “conditions”, not a timeline, mandated their return;
  • that the U.S. would put Pakistan on notice for its support to the Taliban.
  • a political settlement with the Taliban would only follow “after an effective military effort”; and
  • that the policy would hinge on further developing the strategic partnership with India.
  • It is easy to see that each element of the U.S.’s policy on the ground has shifted, if not been entirely reversed.
  1. The appointment of special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September to lead talks with the Taliban after a particularly brutal year shows that the U.S. is no longer waiting for military operations to take effect.
  2. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report to the U.S. Congress, casualties of Afghan National and Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) in May-September 2018 were the “greatest it has ever been” compared to corresponding periods since 2001, and
  3. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan “documented more civilian deaths in the first nine months of 2018 than they had during the same nine-month reporting period since 2014”.
  4. Khalilzad’s direct talks with the Taliban that cut out the National Unity government (NUG) in Kabul reportedly didn’t even have President Ashraf Ghani in the loop until after the first talks were held in Qatar — this reversed the previous U.S. position not to engage the Taliban until it engages the NUG.
  5. Far from the tough talk on Pakistan for support to the Taliban, Mr. Trump wrote a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan thanking him for his efforts.
  • The departure from the avowed U.S. position on an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led” process has clearly ruffled feathers in Kabul.
  • In December, Mr. Ghani appointed two aides of former President Hamid Karzai known for their hardline position on the Taliban and Pakistan as his Defence and Interior Ministers.
  • Putting the seal on the clear drift in the U.S. Afghanistan and South Asia policy from the past was the exit of Defence Secretary James Mattis. He had pushed most strenuously to keep India in the Afghan game by swinging a waiver for India on Chabahar and Iran oil purchases.

Present Scenario in Afghanistan

  • The internal situation in Afghanistan is aggravated now by the uncertainty of the democratic process.
  • Parliamentary elections were held in October after being delayed by more than two years, but even their preliminary results haven’t yet been declared, casting doubt on the government’s ability to conduct elections.
  • Presidential elections have been postponed till July, despite the constitutional clause that they were to be completed by April 22, 2019.
  • Meanwhile, Mr. Ghani has been unable to keep his commitment to hold a Loya Jirga (grand council of representatives) to turn Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s post in the NUG into an executive Prime Ministership.

US withdrawal vis-à-vis–India

For India, these developments may appear discouraging, but a more pragmatic view is necessary to deal with all possible outcomes.

  • The U.S.’s eventual pullout as Afghanistan’s peacekeeper is inevitable, and it would make more sense to prepare for it than to deny it will happen.
  • New Delhi was caught off guard in 2010 when Mr. Obama planned the drawdown and discouraged India from a stake in projects there in an effort to placate Pakistan.
  • Trump’s administration has no doubt been much more welcoming of Indian investment in Afghanistan, but that itself is symptomatic of his desire to pare down “Pax Americana” in every part of the world.
  • The removal or reduction of the U.S. presence from most theatres of action has created space for regional players: leaving Syria to Iran and its allies; Yemen to Saudi Arabia; Afghanistan to players like Russia, Pakistan and Iran; and Pakistan to China.

Some other hard truths must be faced:

  • India cannot replace Pakistan’s position geographically, nor can it ever offer the U.S. or any other force what Pakistan has offered in the past, including bases and permission for U.S. forces to bomb its own territory.
  • Pakistan’s problem is that it sees its relations with Afghanistan through the prism of its relations with India. It seeks a veto on Afghanistan’s relations with India which the Afghans will not accept.
  • Changing this dynamic requires getting rid of the military’s stranglehold on Pakistan’s India and Afghan policies.
  • The decision to abandon the SAARC in favour of groupings like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) may have provided some short-term returns in “isolating Pakistan”, but it has had the effect of cutting Afghanistan loose from Indian leadership of South Asia as well.

Way Forward

  1. India’s best course with Afghanistan remains its own regional strategy, not becoming a part of any other country’s strategy.
  2. Close bilateral consultations like this week’s visit to Delhi of National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, are the basis of India’s ability to help Afghanistan according to its needs, not India’s ambitions, and the reason for the immense popularity and goodwill India continues to enjoy in Afghanistan.
  3. Finally, it is necessary to recognise the cyclical nature of interventions in Afghanistan, which has been called the “graveyard of empires” for forcing all world powers to retreat at some point or the other.
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