The sliver of hope is in the ability of the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to hold itself together in the face of the Taliban’s growing control over territory and population

New Delhi: The way the situation got unfolded in Afghanistan because of the United States’ troops withdrawal is seemingly becoming important for the prospect of stability in Afghanistan. The presence of the United States in Afghanistan since the launch of the global war on terrorism in 2001 could not yield the desired result in an effective manner. The South Asian region in general and Afghanistan in particular could not usher in peace and stability. Unfortunately, US actions could not prevent the mushrooming of terrorist networks despite all the attempts to eliminate the base of all major terrorist groups. Pakistan never supported the dismantling of terrorist networks and in the real sense could not help the US the way it was expected. Pakistan remains the epicentre of terrorism. There was a lack of complete support from Pakistan despite the US providing it with all types of aid. The knowledge in US’ key policy community on Pakistan and its intentions and fundamental goals is still limited. Hence, US policy towards Pakistan has proved to be absolutely flawed. How and why a country like Pakistan keeps receiving all the support from the US forms a major part of the discourse in India.

As the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Scott Miller officially relinquished his duty, and the largest US military base in Afghanistan, the Bagram facility, was handed over to Afghan forces, an era came to an end. Further responsibilities will be overseen by the current commander of the US Central Command, Gen Frank McKenzie, from his headquarters in Tampa, Florida until the completion of the withdrawal process by 31 August. US military efforts will be focused on protecting US diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, safe operation of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, advising and assisting the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, and supporting US counterterrorism efforts. There are divergent opinions in the United States on the decision to withdraw, so fast and so completely. While the foreign and national security team of the Biden administration have come out strongly in support of the decision, voices within the Republican Party and some former officials have been blatantly critical. Former Commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and CIA Director, Gen David Petraeus, categorically called it a decision that the US will come to regret in two years. Former US President George W. Bush, who brought the US in Afghanistan with the Operating Enduring Freedom after the 9/11 attacks, called the decision a mistake at a time when the Taliban were gaining control of more and more territory. Republican lawmakers like Marco Rubio, who sits at the Senate Intelligence Committee, raised the alarm of Al Qaeda’s return with the growing potency of the Taliban.

One of the main commitments in the US-Taliban peace agreement, signed early last year, was a severing of ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. However, Taliban’s willingness to do so has remained highly questionable. President Biden has been staunchly defending his decision to bring US troops back home, contending that the US did not go to Afghanistan to “nation build”. However, that is exactly what the American government ended up embarking in, after overthrowing the Taliban regime and helping orchestrate the Bonn negotiations leading to the interim government, and later overseeing the elections that brought successive Afghan governments to power. Later, the diversion of American resources to the Iraq war and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban frustrated US’ politico-security end goals and the civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan. This led to a heightened sense of war fatigue, coupled with the mounting concerns of a rising China on the global stage and more particularly what is now called the Indo-Pacific region. This set the stage for the Obama followed by the Trump administration, and now the Biden presidency, to backtrack on the American desire for nation building in Afghanistan.

The Afghan war has turned out to be a multi-general conflict. Many young American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were either not born at the time of the 9/11 attacks, or do not remember clearly the security predicaments that brought the US to Afghanistan. Many young Afghans, who either were born after the launch of the Operation Enduring Freedom, or were too young to remember the Taliban rule have seen a very different Afghanistan in the last 20 years. Therefore, as the Americans withdraw from active involvement from the Afghan theatre after 20 years, a number of answered questions remain relating to preserving the gains made in the country, as a cloud of uncertainty looms. There is a palpable sense of insecurity among Afghan government officials with US withdrawal, on the challenges faced by the Afghan security forces, who are left to fight without essential support from the US and NATO forces, such as the lack of aircraft to resupply the troops. Such concerns are mounting, despite reassurances from officials of the Biden administration. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin contended that the US still had a very effective over-the-horizon capability for intelligence information gathering on Afghanistan, from US partners in the Gulf and platforms at sea; and was looking forward to partner with regional countries to place American ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) assets. This assumes importance even as CIA Director William Burns warned of challenges to US intelligence capability after the withdrawal specifically on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan.

Challenging times are ahead, but the US, like in many other conflicts before, was always going to leave one day. The question was about when, and in what circumstances. It might still be too early to know whether Biden’s decision to withdraw is good or bad for the US. Whether it is good or bad for Afghanistan and the region is a secondary question, because it is after all a decision based primarily on America’s domestic incentives, and international compulsions. The sliver of hope is in the ability of the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to hold itself together in the face of the Taliban’s growing control over territory and population. Adding to the complex permutations and combinations will be the ability of regional stakeholders to carve out a bargaining space in their respective bids to develop a thicker skin towards yet another volatile phase in Afghanistan’s modern history. The Americans might have pulled out, but the Afghan war is not over yet. America’s pull out from Afghanistan has opened up a security vacuum. India needs to assess the faintest of risks and use all its leverages to protect and promote its interests in Afghanistan. India will have to become proactive to make Afghanistan a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. The security and stability of Afghanistan will remain pivotal to India’s interests.