History repeats itself in Afghanistan more often than in other countries. Nobody has conquered that country and one super power after another met their waterloo in Afghanistan. The tribal chiefs and warlords battled for supremacy and influence, and the Soviet Union intervened when the regional peace was disturbed. The mighty Soviet forces temporarily disabled the various factions and exercised control of the country with the cooperation of their favourites. After a few years, the arrangements collapsed and the nationalist forces drove the interventionist power out of Afghanistan with the help of the international community. Chaos ensued and terrorists attacked the United States itself.
After the US had driven the Soviet Union out and armed the Mujahideen, the US gave no attention to Afghanistan till the bombings of 9/11. A war on terror was launched and the Taliban Government was removed, but the US got bogged down in an endless war for twenty years at great cost to itself and its allies. The US realized soon enough that precious American lives should not be wasted on Afghanistan and successive Presidents planned various exit strategies after having maintained an Afghan Government, which was being undermined by the Taliban. Finally, the US decided to leave even if it meant loss of face for it and set several deadlines to withdraw, but negotiations for withdrawal dragged on.
The long months of negotiations, involving the United Nations, big powers, regional countries and others, were not from a position of strength as the Taliban knew that victory was at hand for it and that it would be a matter of time before they would get the upper hand. President Biden set the deadline of September 11, but the US quietly handed over the Bagram air base to the Afghan Government in July itself, knowing well that Taliban will inherit the booty left behind. Within no time, Taliban has captured 13 Districts in the periphery of Kabul and more will fall into their hands in the next few days. Taliban has already announced that it is already in occupation of 85%of Afghan territory. The American withdrawal was reminiscent of Vietnam and Iraq where the US did not have any alibi to make their action honourable.
The cost of the war was humongous for all. For the US, the cost was USD 980 billion, 2400 US lives and 1144 allied lives. 50000 Afghan civilians and 7000 security forces lost their lives. The US spent USD 143 billion in reconstruction and spent USD 90 billion to maintain the Afghan army. It will soon be clear that these investments have been futile as the land will be devastated again by the Taliban. The terms of settlement like a ceasefire, severing links with Al Qaeda, intra-Afghan peace talks and others will be things of the past, but the 5000 Taliban forces set free by the US forces would add to the fighting forces of the Taliban.
To prevent such a catastrophe, the United States should have had a strategy to keep the Afghan Government in power as long as possible to prevent a rapid take over by the Taliban. The details of such a strategy, including substantial financial assistance should have been announced to let it be known that the dreams of the Taliban and their masters, Pakistan, that Afghanistan will not fall into their laps in a hurry. It should be remembered that even after the Soviet forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Najibullah Government remained in control with Soviet assistance. The Taliban takeover took place only after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in Vietnam, some arrangements were made to make the transition less tumultuous. Many western strategists believe that the US has a responsibility to support the democratic forces in Afghanistan. The fact that President Ghani and his colleagues were received in Washington by President Biden and his Congressional colleagues gave some hope in this regard. But western intelligence is predicting that the present Government will fall to the Taliban in a year at the most. Without US financial support, it may fall even before, leaving the country to the mercy of the Taliban and other extremists. China is waiting in the wings to enter Afghanistan in a big way for reconstruction in exchange for Islamic elements closing their eyes to Chinese repression of Islamic minorities in China. The Chinese intervention in Afghanistan is another danger to peace in Afghanistan. Will the fate of the Chinese be the same as those of the former Soviet Union and the United States?
India has always been in the periphery of the negotiations, but we have made considerable investments in Afghanistan for reconstruction and development. Our experience of the Taliban Government was a nightmare and so we were hoping that some US presence would prevent a collapse. The US had made an effort to involve India in Afghanistan, but it did not work out because of Pakistan. Now that the Taliban takeover is imminent, EAM Jaishankar visited Iran and Russia to hold consultations on Afghanistan. In Moscow, he expressed concern over the developments in Afghanistan and stated that the consensus of the 1990s about Afghanistan remained valid. But there have been no indications of joint action so far. He also visited Georgia, in an apparent bid to signal to Russia that India would support Georgia’s admission to the European Union.
India had opened discussions with the Taliban also in recent months to ensure that there is a composite Government in Kabul. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has also been suggesting that India should speak to Pakistan itself. India faces the prospect of enhanced involvement of terrorists in Kashmir with the support of the Taliban, even though they had assured the US that they would sever relationship with the Al Qaeda. A China-Pakistan nexus to destabilize Kashmir is very much a possibility. The attack on a dam built with the assistance of India and the threats to the Indian Consulate, which led to their withdrawal do not augur well for India.
An alarming proposal made by a former diplomat was that India should not be a spoilsport in the strategy that may be worked out by the SCO, dominated by China. If history repeats itself and the Taliban takes power in Afghanistan, India will take the brunt of it. If China also supports the Taliban, it would be a great conquest by China, with unpredictable consequences for South Asia. India is already in a Chakravyuha, with developments in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Maldives. China’s entry into Afghanistan would be for India like the final flank for Abhimanyu!
Image courtesy- PTI
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
TP Sreenivasan is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Vienna and Governor for India of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. His previous postings were as India’s Ambassador to Austria and Slovenia; Deputy Chief of Mission (Ambassadorial Rank) in the Embassy of India, Washington; High Commissioner of India to Kenya and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in Nairobi; Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, New York; Ambassador to Fiji and 8 other South Pacific Island States; and postings at the Indian missions in Tokyo, Thimphu, Moscow, New York and Yangon. TP Sreenivasan served in the Indian Foreign Service for 37 years and has nearly 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy and has represented India at a number of international conferences organised by the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Non-Aligned Movement. He has chaired several UN Committees and Conferences.