With the handing over of the Bagram air base to the Afghan government, the historic decision of the US to quit Afghanistan, originally under President Donald Trump, is now put into action by President Joe Biden. This handover is a key manifestation of the strategic but hurried exit of the US.
The US has taken this decision after thoroughly assessing the situation in Afghanistan and realising that continuing to retain troops in Afghanistan is becoming a “futile investment, and a political and military liability”.
The US has realised that its constant involvement in the fragile dynamics of this region will not reverse the long-drawn conflict. While this may be viewed as a strategic victory for the US, it does not guarantee peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, given the ascendancy of Taliban. One may also conclude that the US has not fulfilled its main aim of securing control over Taliban; the Taliban has merely promised to not engage with Al Qaeda. Hence this can be viewed as a tactical defeat of the US too.
Afghan politics is internally brittle and externally vulnerable. The Taliban has been expanding steadily and by 2018, were openly active in 70% of the country. They are now seen to be rapidly capturing rural areas near Kabul, holding twice as much of Afghanistan than they did in May 2021.
Many civilians are now fleeing major districts and migrating to larger cities in the hope of saving themselves from the terror of the Taliban. Prior to the agreement in February 2020, the Taliban had clearly stated that it would engage only with the US government and refused to recognise the existence of the Afghan Government. Upon signing the agreement, the Taliban reduced attacks on foreign troops, but their hostilities against Afghan armed forces increased to which the US proved to be a mute spectator.
They eventually came around and started talks with the Afghan government in September 2020 but could not reach any breakthrough. Last week, on 7th July, around 1000 Afghan troops fled to Tajikistan to escape the wrath of Taliban as it continued to extend its control. Yet, when President Joe Biden was asked whether the Afghan government will be doomed after the US exit, he replied that the Afghan Government should be able to sustain the change in dynamic. There is a huge difference between ‘sustain’ and ‘survive’ which further points to the precarious situation that lies ahead.
Reactions from the Neighbourhood
As scenarios unravel in Afghanistan, multiple players in the neighbourhood with stakes in the Afghan situation watch and assess it from the point of view of their own strategic objectives.
Foremost among them is Pakistan. Pakistan has long been blamed for its unconditional support to the Taliban and for providing them a safe haven. Recently Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan ruled out the possibility of providing an air base to the US owing to their military actions within Afghanistan. Its reluctance in calling out the Taliban is viewed as a tactical and strategic support to terror groups. However, the continued violence within Afghanistan has increased manifold in magnitude and has slowly started spilling over to Pakistan, which is now expecting an influx of Afghan refugees.
Ultimately, the irony is that Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan, initially with the intention to gain a security apparatus, has now escalated into a catch-22 situation and put Pakistan in a perilous state of affairs.
Central Asia and Russia to have expressed serious concerns, with President Putin of Russia reaching out to his counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the rapid advancement of the Taliban within Afghanistan and its control on 70 percent of the Tajik-Afghan border. In response to the Taliban’s moves, Tajikistan has mobilized almost 20,000 extra troops to the Tajik-Afghan border and Russia has promised Tajikistan further defence support ‘if needed’.
While India has been actively involved in rebuilding and development of Afghanistan, it has stayed away from security/military involvement. Previously, India’s Afghanistan policy did not recognize the Taliban as a key stakeholder. However, in a crucial shift, India has recently started talks with certain leaders of the Taliban. The Ministry of External Affairs, GoI, has justified the shift by reiterating that India is committed to the long-term development and reconstruction of Afghanistan and hence is in contact with various stakeholders in the region.
India has much to gain from these backchannel communications and must take all action to reclaim its position in Afghanistan. Having a constant communication channel with Taliban is imperative if it has to minimise the support Kashmir-focused militant organisations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba receive from within Afghanistan. Similarly, Taliban too will benefit from cordial ties with India, for India has always been keen on providing necessary resources in order to facilitate development and reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The Way Forward
Today, Afghanistan stands at a juncture similar to the one it stood at 33 years ago. Some of the insurgent groups and dynamics may have changed, but the outcome has been more or less the same. The imbroglio caused in Afghanistan may seem to never end, however there are key scenarios expected in the coming months.
All factors point to the fact that Taliban is a reality and shall remain a dominant force within Afghanistan. The current Afghan Government may have to function, more than not, in tandem with them.
Any miscommunication on both ends will lead to more violence and bloodshed and will only intensify the already tense situation. NATO countries are highly likely to keep a close watch on Afghanistan while imposing sanctions on it, if any connections to Al Qaeda or ISIS are found. Particularly, the US would not want another Iraq; it left Iraq at a time and in a manner which monumentally deteriorated regional dynamics and further propelled terrorist groups, and the US would not want to repeat the mistake in Afghanistan.
Even after the exit, the US will continue to monitor and hold both, the Taliban, and the Afghan Government accountable for their actions. However, this would barely brighten Afghanistan’s future. Without rapid improvement in the appalling living conditions of the population, a firm commitment to peace by the international community, and enduring internal political stability, the chances of Afghanistan surviving the trying times ahead are quite slim.
Anoushka Bhardwaj is pursuing B.A. Economics Honours and is a foreign policy research enthusiast.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.
A very good article. A concise and balanced write up.