Organised by: Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.
Date & Time: September 2, 2021 at 05:00 PM
Webinar: CPPR Webinar Series on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications and the Road Ahead
About the Event: Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi organised a discussion in continuation of its webinar series based on the ongoing stalemate in Afghanistan with the intention of comprehending the changing dynamics associated with the Afghan political crisis and its future prospects by engaging experts from the realm of academia, think tanks, and media.
Ambassador T P Sreenivasan , Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Vienna and Governor for India of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He 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.
DR Shelly Johny, Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) at CPPR and Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Aloysius College, Elthuruth, Thrissur. He completed his Masters in International Relations at Middlesex University, London. He did his MPhil and PhD in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Purvaja Modak, (Research Fellow, International Relations, CPPR) started the discussion by introducing the webinar series and its theme, ‘U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications and the Road Ahead’. While shedding light on CPPR’s background, she also discussed the variety of successful initiatives undertaken by the CPPR so far. After introducing the speaker, Ambassador TP Sreenivasan and the host, Dr Shelly Johny, she handed it over to the host.
Dr Shelly Johny laid the groundwork by describing the volatile situation in Afghanistan, created as a result of the US withdrawal from the country after more than 20 years and invited Ambassador TP Sreenivasan to share his views on the issue. Ambassador Sreenivasan appreciated the theme of the webinar as being very timely and relevant. He reflected that there is an influx of information on this issue but perhaps the most striking and incisive was a joke, a cruel one indeed, that after three US Presidents, trillions of dollars and 20 years, the US ended up replacing the Taliban with Taliban in Afghanistan.
He referred to 9/11 as the starting point of the US’ war on terrorism which in turn led to its intervention in Afghanistan. After years of efforts entailing huge costs, both human and material, the US decided to pull out. Ambassador Sreenivasan asserted that President Biden took the right decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. President Biden did only what previous Presidents had wanted to do. But, the follow-up of this decision was wanting. The Ambassador suggested that the discussions on the future arrangements of governance should have been concluded before the US announced its date of withdrawal. Also, they should have retrieved their resources back to the US when they had the opportunity to do it in peace. Had such measures been taken up, the US would have been hailed as a saviour whereas it is now trying to save face. It is right to say that President Biden did the right thing in the wrong way.
As a result, the Afghan forces trained by Americans withered away in a day. Taliban took over and won without any significant resistance. Yet, the Ambassador disagreed with those experts who are declaring that Pax Americana died in Kabul. This is not the first time such an adverse situation has been created, but America remains the most powerful nation on the face of this earth and in the Ambassador’s opinion, the US will recover.
He went on to say that the real winner in this situation is Pakistan. It has the best of both worlds: the financial support from the US which Pakistan used for their intelligence agencies, army and even for fattening the Taliban; and now they have the advantage of an unshackled Taliban reigning over Afghanistan. Though, the Ambassador warned, it may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, as no one is sure about how much influence Pakistan will be able to exert in Afghanistan.
Moving towards other stakeholders in the region, the Ambassador talked about China. This moment is a god-sent for Beijing as it can energise its BRI which faces a gap in Afghanistan as of now. China is also eyeing the mineral deposits in Afghanistan. India should be concerned about the China-Pakistan-Taliban axis. Russia should have been suspicious, but circumstances warmed its stance towards the Taliban as it seems to be the only stakeholder Russia can work within Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran is also supporting the Taliban which comes as a surprise, considering its solidarity with Shias of the Northern territories. Perhaps, its angst against the US is the causal factor there.
Taliban now has two faces; Taliban 2.0, which promises a peaceful rule under sharia law. But behind this is the Taliban 1.0, which still poses a danger. It should be noted that other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network will also be in play.
To add to India’s woes, there are risks of increasing insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, as the last time Taliban was in power, the J & K situation had become more volatile, owing to the terrorists operating out of Afghanistan. In such a scenario, India’s first and foremost interest is to get all Indians back home safely along with the friendly Afghan nationals. Next, India must focus on reviving the humanitarian initiatives in Afghanistan. India has heavily invested in these areas, the most prominent symbol being the ‘Parliament building’ which India hope would be the seat of democracy in Afghanistan. Thirdly, India should ensure leave no stone unturned to ensure that terrorism does not become the order of the day in Afghanistan or the surrounding region, as it directly impacts the regional stability. It also has an indirect impact on our internal security, considering the J&K dimension. To this end, India has started the dialogue with the Taliban, but with caution, given its history. Pakistan religiously kept India out of all the peace consultations and negotiations in Afghanistan. The flimsy reason provided by the United Nations to justify this was of India lacking a shared border with Afghanistan, conveniently forgetting about our border in POK. Despite this, India is working hard to make sure the people of Afghanistan are not pushed into abject poverty. US money will no longer be available to rescue them. No international organisation will come to their aid, without a government in place.
The Ambassador suggested that India should make sure that there is no degradation in relations with Pakistan. It should be made amply clear that India only wants peace in Afghanistan; we are not eyeing their resources. To reply to the criticism of India withdrawing the embassy, he pointed out that the lives of our diplomats and our army were at stake and we did not have any guarantee of their protection. India’s work in building relations continues even when the embassy is closed.
Dr Shelly Johny took the discussion forward with his question about the timing of US withdrawal. Was the hasty decision influenced by domestic pressure or the symbolic importance of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 ?, he asked. Ambassador Sreenivasan replied that there was no evident pressure from the public in the US, unlike during the Vietnam War. President Biden simply culminated the gradual process of withdrawal. US Generals accept that they misread the situation. They were not in touch with the ground realities. The Afghan forces were not inspired enough to give their lives for some form of stability which the US had established. Yet, the situation cannot be portrayed as the end of Pax Americana.
Following this, Dr Shelly asked whether there is any alternative to ‘Taliban’ in Afghanistan. This Taliban is not as coherent as the last time; it has more diverse factions, and personalities. What should be India’s course of action in this situation, as it is very different from the last time this happened? The Ambassador replied that Iran’s response was a major disappointment. It rushed in to recognise the Taliban. This shows that the Northern alliance is not strong; there is no leadership to resist the Taliban. He also indicated Afghanistan’s approach: they don’t fight to death; they show their power, flex muscles and then sit down to negotiate on that ground. Hence, even India is not going to be in any ‘resistance’ mode. We will have to adjust to whoever comes to power. Our major concern is about trends in the region and making sure that it does not affect our strategic interests.
Dr. Shelly Johny also asked Ambassador TP Sreenivasan about the new players in the region: TTP (Taliban in Pakistan) and Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) and how their actions will pan out in this situation. The Ambassador replied that as long as we do not know the composition of the Government, we cannot know this for sure. Even the Haqqani Network (financed by ISI) aims to join the government in Afghanistan. Once we know the composition of the government, we can see who will be accountable. But unaccountable stakeholders are bound to create trouble. We can rely on the US to not be completely absent. It will keep an eye and India will have to do the same.
When asked about China’s approach and their course of action, the Ambassador replied that China already has Pakistan in its pocket. It can operate through Pakistan easily, without putting boots on the ground. India is the only one at disadvantage here. Despite our overtures, Xi Jinping’s regime has been at work to spoil India’s peace. We can’t bank on any of the stakeholders except for maybe QUAD or the US.
One of the audience members asked if the Ambassador agrees with the argument that the US should end its intervention policies to establish democracies across the world, without knowing their cultural traits. He accepted that the US is infamous for causing regime changes, with little or no impact, at grave cost. It is true that this policy has not been uniformly successful and needs a review. But he also accepted the reality that the US will not do so, as they go by what they consider as vital interests of the US.
Another audience member wanted to know about the formal Afghan membership in international alliances and organisations, and who will India consider as the government-in-exile, if it is formed. The Ambassador pointed out that India has not followed a uniform policy in these matters. Recognition is an art not a science. Looking at Myanmar’s example, we have friendly relations with the army in order to maintain balance in the region, despite it being against our many historical stances. We revolted against Fiji’s action against Indians, we did not recognise their government, yet the Indian Ambassador continued to function from there. We never recognised Dalai Lama as Government-in-exile, but just as an honoured guest of the country. We come up with innovative policies to safeguard our strategic interests.
The Ambassador reminded us that the UN cannot do anything without the P5’s consensus. It can only go ahead with what is the lowest denominator in the council, which is mostly limited to some initiative on the lines of humanitarian aid. On the other hand, India has proved its mettle as a good partner in very adverse circumstances. Yes, it is true that the moment the US umbrella folded, we came home. But, we have embodied ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ through our efforts in building capacity and resources in Afghanistan.
The audience then asked about the US’ continued to support Pakistan, to which the Ambassador replied that the US needs Pakistan to keep an eye on the area. They have pulled out of Afghanistan; they need a reliable partner in the form of Pakistan to make sure that their vital interests are not endangered.
The final question was about the role of Amrullah Saleh, who has claimed to be the acting President of Afghanistan. The Ambassador appreciated his courage and accepted that he has a good reputation and even has some support to form a government. But, even he is not calling for an all-out war against the Taliban. He is a flicker of hope but we cannot rely on him.
Dr. Shelly Johny concluded by thanking the Ambassador for covering the entire gamut of dimensions of the rapidly evolving dynamic in Afghanistan. This webinar was very fruitful in clarifying the complex and nuanced equations in the region. In continuation, Purvaja Modak thanked the speaker, the host and the CPPR team for putting together this webinar and making it a success.
This event report was prepared by CPPR Intern, Aditi Mishra.
Event Video Recording: https://youtu.be/P5IopEMGnaA