Sep 09, 2019-Monday
New Delhi will quietly cheer the collapse of United States President Donald Trump’s latest attempt to conclude a peace agreement between his government, the Taliban and the Afghan government. India has long opposed the idea of a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in the belief this would bring the Taliban to power in Kabul. India believes any Taliban regime will be beholden to Pakistan’s military and allow their country to once again become a jihadi back-office for Rawalpindi. At the very least, it would mean hundreds of Pakistani-backed militants currently fighting in Afghanistan would be available for fighting in India and Central Asia – just when the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is especially tense.
Realistically, India has few cards to play when it comes to thwarting a US withdrawal. Mr Trump is the second US president to seek to end his country’s 18-year-old military involvement in Afghanistan. As was the case with President Barack Obama, the only external player the Trump administration sees as having even the slightest role to play in the withdrawal process is Pakistan. Both Mr Obama and Mr Trump were motivated by a belief that their country was involved in too many overseas military operations and needed to pull back from them. Mr Trump is also driven by a desire for an immediate diplomatic success in the run-up to elections next year. He does not see the Taliban as a threat to the US and his isolationist worldview makes him indifferent to the destabilising effects a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may have on the region.
Therefore, the best hope of stalling a US withdrawal arises from the internal conflicts within Washington. All of these were evident in the collapse of the Camp David meeting Mr Trump tried to put together: divisions among his advisers, opposition from the Kabul regime, the Pentagon and Taliban rejection of a ceasefire while the talks were on, and the added complication of the president’s idiosyncratic version of diplomacy. A draft peace agreement still exists, and Mr Trump will probably make at least one more effort to get it signed before the US election campaign officially kicks off. But India must accept that the next US president, whoever it may be, will probably also seek withdrawal. Afghanistan claims less than 20 US lives a year, but the lack of US public support, and the need to handle the challenge of China, will drive any US leader down the same path. India’s Afghan priority should be preparing for the day after, even though that day has been postponed once again.
First Published: Sep 09, 2019 20:46 IST