US Withdrawal From Afghanistan–Implications For South Asia

The announcement by US President Donald Trump of withdrawal of half of US troops from Afghanistan has come as a rude shock for the Kabul government. Declaring his South Asia policy in August, 2017, Mr. Trump had remarked that he had allowed himself to be persuaded by his advisers to enhance US presence in Afghanistan. During his election campaign, President Trump had strongly asserted that US troops should return home. He however changed his stand in August last year and said that USA will not adhere to any artificial deadlines for withdrawal but will stay as long as it took to achieve peace and victory.

In addition, he had invited India to become more actively involved in Afghanistan and warned Pakistan that it should stop supporting and providing safe havens to the Taliban and terrorists, failing which it will have to pay a heavy price. Following that announcement, US strength of troops was increased by 4,000 and sustained pressure was applied on Pakistan, including by withholding payments to the tune of US$ 3 billion, to stop aiding the Taliban.

The latest announcement by the US President indicates that his South Asia policy has failed miserably and he has been forced to capitulate without receiving anything in return. Mr. Trump projects himself as the quintessential ‘’dealmaker’’. What he has got in return for this unilateral withdrawal is not clear?

For the last several months it had become evident that the Trump administration was in a tearing hurry to ‘’declare victory’’ and leave Afghanistan. The US President entrusted this task to Zalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan in September, 2018 and reportedly gave him 6 months to bring Taliban to the negotiating table. The latest pronouncement makes it clear that Mr. Trump was not prepared to wait even that long.

This declaration has put South Asia in a particularly difficult situation. India has always distanced itself from engaging with the Taliban. However, Pakistan has demanded a prominent role for Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan. This would enable Pakistan to ensure a commanding position for itself in that country. China has also been seeking to create a triad with Pakistan and Afghanistan to promote its Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan. Russia too has been keen to use Pakistan’s good offices to reach out to the Taliban, ostensibly to combat the growing threat of Daesh (IS) in the region.

Departure of US forces will make the security situation for Indian personnel engaged in reconstruction of Afghanistan more precarious. India will need to devise fresh strategies including collaborating more pro-actively with local influential elements including the erstwhile Northern Alliance and others to protect and secure its personnel and assets in Afghanistan.

This move is a huge shot in the arm for Pakistan and the Taliban, both of which act in concert with each other. Taliban has significantly expanded its control over Afghan territory in recent months. This decision will give it greater confidence to challenge the Kabul government and launch more malicious attacks against Afghan citizens and security forces.

US departure will be seen as a stinging defeat and will further embolden Pakistan to abet the vile actions of Taliban, and terrorist groups against India. Russia, China and Iran will welcome this development as it will enable them, particularly China, to expand their influence in the vacuum created by the US withdrawal. The Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani has tried to put up a brave face to this development saying that the withdrawal of a ‘’few thousand foreign advisers’’ would not jeopardize Afghan security.

The news of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan coming simultaneously with the resignation of American Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, has been received with deep dismay by US allies. Psychologically, militarily and morally, this will be seen as a debacle and will have adverse long term implications for US leadership and reliability.

Script: Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Indian Diplomat & President Institute Of Global Studies