Sahil Mishra, a retired Air Force officer, analyses the legal and political consequences of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan...
The future of the Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan and their eagerness to control the country in order to expand their influence all over South Asia will be ascertained by the end of April, 2021, depending on the extent to which US President Joe Biden is agreeable to go ahead with the decision of his predecessor Donald Trump for a timed withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country.
Tied to this is a clutch of factors that determine war and peace among the countries of South Asia and its neighbor, China. Prime among them is the anxiousness of India which wants to be a willing partner in developing the new future of Afghanistan, but is thwarted by both the terrorist groups and neighboring countries inimical to it.
The withdrawal of the American troops, which entered the country in 2001, is supposed to pave the way for the Afghans to rule themselves without external or internal military and terrorist interventions for the first time in over two decades. The deadline for this, as per the agreement Trump signed with the Afghan Taliban, is April end this year.
The acrimony over the transfer of power from Trump to Biden has, however, delayed the withdrawal; while on the ground in Afghanistan, the pernicious influence of the various terrorist groups is beginning to weigh down on the agreement even before its implementation.
Trump began negotiations with the Taliban for an agreement on troop withdrawal knowing his countrymen would welcome the step. The agreement was signed last February, but the American security agencies wanted to be sure that in the absence of their troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban would not deepen its ties with al-Qaeda, nor help the latter to use the country as the center of future anti-American activities. No assurances were ever forthcoming to the US on this count, nor will they be in the future.
Biden faces a Taliban which knows it will definitely have a share in power in the future Afghanistan. It is yet to convince the Americans that it will have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. The new President, unlike Trump, is not willing to jump the gun. According to indications, he would like to proceed slowly and with due caution, and possibly favors retaining a small counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan, thus placing the Taliban under closer scrutiny over its al-Qaeda links. His own team, according to media reports, wants him to meet the April-end deadline of withdrawing the troops as that would make a favorable impression on the American people.
Trump had also engaged in an intermittent air war against terror groups inside Afghanistan. That not only led to many civilian deaths, but also spread an anti-American radicalization across the country. American policy makers advise Biden not to follow Trump, but to be practical in dealing with that country. There are several other analysts who are saying that Biden should withdraw at once and not wait indefinitely for a fully secure withdrawal after cessation of terrorism in Afghanistan. How long will he wait and who will guarantee a complete end to terrorism, they ask.
This is the American way of looking at things, prioritizing American well-being. While Biden mulls over the strategy he will have to finalize in the coming weeks, the ground situation in Afghanistan is beginning to be a cause for concern.
How does the post-withdrawal scenario play out for Afghanistan’s neighbors? Take Pakistan, for instance, which has a definitive relationship with the Afghan Taliban. There is universal agreement among intelligence agencies that the withdrawal would strengthen the already growing influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) which controls the Taliban, specially the Haqqani network.
Pakistan is currently close to China which has its own vested interest in having a foothold in Afghanistan. China, like Russia, wants the American troops to leave Afghanistan so they can try to influence the new government that will eventually rule the country. In the run-up to the Doha agreement between Trump and the Taliban, China played a concerned role in getting the agreement signed. When the first round of talks failed in 2012, it was China which took an initiative in 2014 to talk to the Taliban and convince it to go back to the negotiating table. It held meetings with the Taliban again in 2019 when the talks threatened to fail. China, and for that matter Russia, tend to operate in Afghanistan through the former’s influence over both Pakistan and Taliban.
That leaves India. India has had old relations with Afghanistan. It is committed to the latter’s development into a peaceful democracy. Its investment in Afghanistan has already crossed three billion dollars. Both countries have an exclusive air corridor for India to dispatch material necessary for Afghan farmers and small businessmen.
However, once the US troops withdraw, Indian trade ties may no longer give it the clout to be close to the Afghan government. The Taliban are the problem. India cannot forget that it was the Taliban that escorted terrorists into Pakistan after the 1999 hijacking of an Indian aircraft to Kandahar. They were anti-India and pro-Pakistan when they were previously in power between 1996 and 2001. They now have close relations with Pakistan’s ISI. The Taliban’s Haqqani faction is anti-India as well, having executed terror attacks against Indians and Indian properties in Afghanistan. The attack on the Indian embassy in the capital city of Kabul was carried out by them. The Haqqani group is also close to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba that is responsible for heinous terror crimes in India. Through them, the Pakistani establishment seeks to influence the Afghan government against India.
However, the biggest worry for India is the gradual strengthening of the terrorist group, Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), that is part of the Islamic State. The group grabbed the opportunity provided by the initial confusion over the American troop withdrawal proposal to entrench itself in Afghanistan. It began to recruit radicalized youth from all over South Asia, including India. It antagonized the Taliban by weaning away trained terrorists from it and from other Pakistani terrorist groups as well. With its organisational capabilities, ruthless actions and declared hatred for India, the IS-K poses a definite threat to India’s future role in Afghanistan.
On 25th March, 2020, the IS-K attacked a Sikh gurudwara in Kabul, killing 25 worshippers. What made India realise the gravity of the situation was the presence of a radicalized youth from Kerala among the attackers. The attack shocked the world, resulting in the US House of Representatives passing a resolution against the terrorist group.
In 2018, the IS-K declared its presence and its anti-India intentions by claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jalalabad town on July 1st. Nineteen people lost their lives in the attack, including senior members of the Hindu and Sikh communities who had assembled at a place for an audience with the President of Afghanistan.
Initially, the IS-K and the Taliban did not see eye to eye. The Taliban actually saw the terrorist group as a direct threat and initiated organised offensives against it. As part of the Doha agreement with the US, the Taliban readily agreed to finish off the IS-K. However, things have changed since. The Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a pro-Pakistani and a leader of the Haqqani group, is no longer reported to be hostile to the IS-K. He is said to have adopted a neutral attitude towards it and trying to convince the IS-K to stop attacking Pakistan. The implications are quite dangerous for countries like India.
This is the brief, preliminary assessment of the political backdrop in which the new American President’s decision is awaited on total withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The question before President Biden is: Should he withdraw the troops irrespective of what happens to Afghanistan or should be withdraw after ensuring relative peace in the country and the region? More than anything else, Biden’s answer will determine America’s future efficacy as the world’s policeman.
Wing Cdr. (retd) Sahil Mishra is a retired Air force officer. He is a National Defense Academy alumni and completed his Air force training in Hyderabad getting commissioned as a fighter pilot. He took charge of ground duty after a decade long experience of flying MiG’s. He has worked in varied fields of work in IAF since then like, Personnel Management, Procurement, and Training. He has pursued and completed post-graduation in English Honors and now writing keeps him busy post-retirement.
Suggested citation: Sahil Mishra, Biden’s 1st Challenge: Troops Return from Afghanistan, JURIST – Professional Commentary, February 28, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/02/sahil-mishra-biden-challenge-troops-return-from-Afghanistan/.
This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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