South Asia

US Plans to Exit Afghanistan in Five Years. What Does This Mean for India?

New Delhi stands to lose not just political but also economic influence in Afghanistan.

According to a new Pentagon plan offered in the peace negotiations with the Taliban, all US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in the next three to five years, the New York Times reported.

The new report is in line with President Donald Trump’s earlier call for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. On December 20, 2018, just a few hours after the resignation of Trump’s defence secretary Jim Mattis over the withdrawal of 2000 US troops from Syria, various news outlets reported that the US also plans to pull out 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan. On December 28, 2018, a White House spokesperson for the National Security Council denied these reports in Bloomberg News.

Nevertheless, a few days after, at a press appearance after 2019’s first cabinet meeting, President Trump once again defended his push for the US to invest less in countries overseas, particularly Afghanistan. Trump also urged local actors to do more in the region.

“Why isn’t Russia there? Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there?” he asked at the press conference. “Why are we there? We are 6,000 miles away.”

Also read: Why We Shouldn’t Denounce Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Syria

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as a part of its ‘war on terror’ after the September 11 terrorist attacks on American soil. Since then, the US has been fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. Presently, there are 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. The bare-thin US and NATO troops are there to advise and assist the Afghan Security Forces.

Pentagon’s plan will cut the US troops presently stationed in Afghanistan by half in the next few months and shift their mission from training the Afghan military to counterterrorism strikes, added the Times, based on its interviews with more than half a dozen current and former American and European officials.

Implications of US withdrawal on India

The current peace negotiations between Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Taliban come amidst heightened violence in Afghanistan. A 2019 UN report found that more civilians were killed in 2018 in Afghanistan than any other year since 2009. The single largest cause of their death – suicide bombings and related attacks by insurgents.

Earlier withdrawal of US and NATO combat troops by the end of 2014 saw a resurgence of Taliban, intent on capturing large swaths of the conflict-ridden country. Presently, the Afghan government controls just 56% of the countries’ districts, according to a 2018 report by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Taliban and other militia, including al-Qaeda and a newly-emerged ISIL, are fighting for dominance in the remaining regions.

Zalmay Khalilzad. Credit: Reuters

If the US abruptly withdraws from Afghanistan, the worst case scenario is that Taliban, bolstered by the withdrawal, along with several other old militias rearm themselves in anticipation; local actors like Pakistan and Russia support their proxies as they did in the early 1990s and a new and bloodier civil war breaks out in Afghanistan.

Also watch: Has India’s Afghanistan Policy Served Us Well?

India’s worst-case scenario 

The fight in its neighbourhood pilfers into India’s turbulent domestic region, particularly the Kashmir Valley, through the subcontinent’s porous borders aided by proxy terrorists and militia groups, some of whom Pakistan has supported and provided a safe haven for throughout the years.

New Delhi recognises that few countries have more at stake in Kabul than India.

“No troop in Afghanistan” is a course of action that the BJP-government, like the ones before it, have candidly proclaimed despite multiple calls by the US president to “do more” in Afghanistan. By not committing troops in Afghanistan, New Delhi has continued to reiterate its strategic autonomy, not alienate its relationship with China or Russia and bolstered its soft-power credentials in Afghanistan.

In the past, the US has also discouraged Indian boots on the ground, given the US’s strategic ties with Pakistan. Islamabad fears Indian security presence in Afghanistan could lead to a Kabul-New Delhi “strategic encirclement” – a hostile India on its East and a hostile Afghanistan on its West.

Representational image. Members of Taliban delegation take their seats during the multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan in Moscow last December. Credit: Reuters

India has largely followed development diplomacy. It is the largest regional donor and the fifth-largest donor to Afghanistan. New Delhi has committed up to $3 billion in development aid since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan has been the second-largest recipient of Indian foreign aid in the past five years.

It is India’s state-building role along with its refusal to send in troops that have earned New Delhi immense goodwill in Afghanistan. But this could all change soon as American policy oscillates away from Kabul.

Also read: A Taliban Perspective on Recent Peace Talks for Afghanistan

Indian domestic security and the Taliban connection

India has been a vocal opponent of the Taliban, which continues to maintain a close relationship with Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Pakistan’s Afghanistan strategy has always been to prop up the Taliban as a legitimate political actor in the area. Before coming into power, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had campaigned for the US to engage with Taliban, earning him the moniker “Taliban Khan” from his critics for his soft stance against the militant group. Given these ties, the Indian domestic security threat is bound to increase were Taliban to return to power in Kabul.

It will also motivate local insurgent actors in Kashmir.

Recently, the suicide bomb attack that killed over 40 Indian paramilitary police in Pulwama was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group. The suicide bomber was reportedly inspired by Taliban’s “victory” in Afghanistan from foreign occupiers through jihad, reported the Times of India. The bomber had recorded two videos before the attacks, explaining his “martyrdom” that soon began circulating in the Indian media post-Pulwama.

Security forces in Pulwama. Credit: PTI

Former General of Police K. Rajendra Kumar had earlier cautioned about this increased threat as the American troops pull-out. “It has its implications in Kashmir. It is a matter of time that we will be feeling its implications in the Valley. After the US withdrawal, the terrorist organisations would feel pumped up, emboldened,” Kumar said to NDTV News in December 2018.

On February 21, 2019, as tensions began escalating between India and Pakistan post the Pulwama attack, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zahid Nasrullah, warned that the peace talks between the US and Taliban would be affected if India retaliates with violence. While Nasrullah was criticised for his statement and handed the diplomatic demarche by the Afghan government, the fear of a spillover from the Indian-Pakistan conflict to the Taliban negotiations and vice-versa cannot be ignored.

Also read: The Elusive Afghan Peace and India’s Way Forward

Despite being the largest regional donor to Afghanistan, India’s role in the ongoing peace talks has been largely minimal. New Delhi is right to be wary of Islamabad’s increasingly important role in the peace talks as a facilitator between the US and the Taliban. As the US relents to dialogue with the insurgent group, the tide is shifting in Islamabad’s favour. It will undoubtedly put a wrench in India’s plans to isolate Pakistan globally.

While official Indian policy has always been to push for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process with active participation from the Afghan government, there has been a noticeable shift in recent months in New Delhi’s previously hostile position towards the Taliban.

With key players like the US, China, Russia and Iran directly engaging with the Taliban, while Indian allies in the Kabul government are struggling to retain power, New Delhi has little option but to change tack. India has shifted from having no engagement at all with Taliban to non-official participation at the Moscow format talks in Russia on November 9 with Taliban and other regional actors.

India stands to lose not just political but also economic influence in Afghanistan. For the rapidly growing and energy-starved India, Afghanistan is an important gateway to the resource-rich Central Asia states. For instance, an unstable Afghanistan could endanger the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project. The TAPI project plans to help abate both India and Pakistan’s energy demands, providing 42% energy to each and the remaining to Afghanistan along with transit revenue.

Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist from India. She specialises in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues.