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India needs an action plan

By Nitin Pai

Donald Trump is under heavy criticism for ordering a withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Whatever you might say about the manner in which he made and announced his decisions, on Afghanistan at least, he is not wrong.

If you look at it from an American perspective, it’s hard to explain why US troops are still in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is done, al-Qaeda has been nearly decimated, and an Afghan government the US midwifed has been in power for several years now. The government controls only around 60 per cent of the country and the Taliban have been growing stronger over the past couple of years. The cultivation and export of narcotics has also been growing.

No one, however, can credibly argue that if the US continues to remain in the country, the security situation will improve in the next three, five or ten years.After 17 years, hundreds of lives lost, over a trillion dollars already spent and an annual budget of hundreds of billions of dollars, the question is whether the cost of staying is worth the benefits. It is reasonable for a thoughtful American to conclude that now is a better time to pull troops out of Afghanistan than later.

The consequences of a US withdrawal are mainly of concern to the Afghan people and their neighbours in the region, including us in India. Whatever success ZalmayKhalilzad, the US interlocutor, manages to achieve, it is now quite likely that the country will see a period of political instability, turmoil and violence. We should hope that the country avoids a long and bloody civil war. We should expect, though, that regional warlords will hold greater sway over the territories under their control, with various kinds of relationships with a putative central power in Kabul.

Some of these warlords will be strategic proxies of external powers like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and yes, India. Others will make opportunistic deals in pursuit of their interests. It would be foolish to try and predict exactly who will come out on top in this jostling. How long it will last, and what cost the Afghan people will have to pay remains to be seen.

The Taliban are already claiming that they have won, and defeated a second superpower. They are entitled to such comforting tales that they can tell themselves and the world. It is by no means certain that they will be able to recapture power and full control of the Afghan state. Even if they manage that feat, it is unlikely that their government will secure international recognition from anyone other than Pakistan. And even Pakistan might make an official recognition contingent on the Taliban accepting the legitimacy of the Durand Line, which no government in Kabul has ever countenanced before. The best the Taliban can hope for is an accommodation within a future ruling dispensation..

As for Pakistan, despite some triumphalist bravado from the likes of its foreign minister, it has a new problem on its hands. The country cannot escape the spillover effects of an increasingly violent political climate across its western borders. It is hard to foresee a dispensation in Kabul that will not have a testy relationship with Islamabad; the Taliban might well have received shelter on Pakistani soil, but once in power, they will quickly make the distinction between Pakistani interests and their own.

On a number of issues, from the Durand line, to the manner in which the Pakistani intelligence manipulated the Taliban leadership, to relationships among the Pashtun tribes along their common frontier, to support for Islamist militant groups, there are important differences between the Taliban and the Pakistani establishment. Once the US leaves, these differences will come to the fore.

What if the Taliban retake Kabul, set aside their differences with the Pakistanis, and permit the latter to push Jihadi militant groups into Afghan territory? What if they, in turn, create safe havens and training camps for international terrorists targeting India, the United States and other countries?

This is certainly a risk. However, it is unlikely that we will see a return of the bad old days of the 1990s because the international environment is dramatically different.

Few countries have any tolerance for Islamist groups and are deeply suspicious of Pakistani links with any of them. The West has been stung by 9/11 and other attacks in Europe. The Russians are wary of their Caucasian and Central Asian underbelly. The Chinese, busy building concentration camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, are unlikely to be sympathetic to cries of international Jihad. The Gulf Arabs have also had their share of trouble with radicalism and have a different approach now. The Pakistani establishment will have to weigh the costs to itself carefully before signing off on cross-border terrorism plans.

Does that mean we can relax? Certainly not. The risk might be low, but it’s there. This means it will have to be managed: it calls for greater surveillance, better intelligence, deeper bilateral and multilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism and acquisition of capacity to eliminate the threats at all stages. This is what the United States will do post withdrawal, and this is what India too will need to do.

To this end, New Delhi must revive or create a new ‘Northern Alliance’ and provide it with financial and political backing. We’ve overlooked this in the past, but we can neutralise geographic barriers by reaching the Afghan people directly by setting up a television channel broadcasting to the country in Pashto, Dari and Hindi-Urdu. India hosts the families of many prominent Afghans, and we should continue to be a safe haven for them. Once the civil war ends, Afghanistan will need professionals and educated elite: India can help nurture them by opening up educational opportunities for them. We could even permit Afghan universities to host campuses in India so that the next generation of Afghans are not denied education because of politics.

It’s not only the Taliban that “have the time”. We have it too. India’s interests are to remain on the side of the Afghan people. We can pursue them even after the last American leaves.