President Trump’s decision to reduce the 14000 US troops in Afghanistan is a logical consequence of his steadfast opposition to foreign wars which drain the US financially. As Mr Zalmay Kalidzad, the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, attempts to bring an acceptance of US interests by Taliban negotiators, the Taliban show little interest in negotiating an end to the war. Talks with the Taliban are stalled as it persistently rejects the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) being a party to the peace negotiations as well as has imposed a condition for withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan for a peace agreement to be concluded. The US would cut a sorry picture before its allies’ world over, if it abandons the government in Kabul supported by it since Dec 2001 when Hamid Karzai was made the Interim President. In case the US precipitately departs, and the Taliban come to power in Kabul, two alternate futures for India in Afghanistan are given below.
Déjà vu. Zalmay Khalidzad’s talks drag on without results. By the end of 2019 and in the run-up to the US Presidential elections in Nov 2020, President Trump pulls out of Afghanistan. There is a fig leaf of an agreement where the Taliban agree never to serve as a platform for international terrorism again or seek retribution on those in the NUG. A brief civil war sees the Quetta Shura decimating the Rasool Shura and accommodating the Mashhad Shura in Afghan governance. The NUG partners were forced out of Kabul Northwards and again reformed the ‘Northern Alliance’ with the Shura of the North joining them.
South Asian ethics have a strong tradition of loyalty to friends and protecting those who seek refuge and being ‘true to the salt’ (Namak Haraam i.e. someone who betrays the one who feeds him, is a particularly nasty North Indian epithet). In 1996 following the ‘Pashtunwali’ code, the Taliban preferred destruction, to giving up Osama Bin Laden to the Americans. In the epic The Mahabharata, the warrior Karna sided the Kauravas though he knew they were in the wrong, because Duryodhana had befriended him in hard times. Therefore, it was no surprise that India stood by the NUG, as it had stood by the Northern Alliance between 1996 and 2001. The NUG was pushed Northwards into Balkh, Samangan, Panjshir, Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar, Nuristan and Badakhshan provinces. India was against the Taliban regime which was equated to a Pakistani creation which would create trouble in Kashmir and in general be anti-Indian. The economic support and small development projects were stopped. The Taliban regime under Pakistani directions asked India to shut down its consulates in Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. The consulate in Mazar -e- Sharif continued as the de-facto embassy for the NUG. The embassy in Kabul was vacated. Once again India had no diplomatic relations with a Taliban led Afghanistan. With no US and weak Russian support, the anti-Taliban Pashtun/ Tajik/Uzbek/Hazara NUG is being hemmed in in a shrinking perimeter. The outlook appears bleak. Pakistan is in a win-win situation.
Every Cloud has a Silver Lining. The same situation as given above happens. Following the dictum “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”, India does not support the NUG as it retreats Northwards. India decides to make overtures to the Taliban government and recognises it. However, under Pakistani directions, the Taliban government asks India to close all its consulates which India complies with. The development efforts by India in Afghanistan slowly wind down. The embassy in Kabul is managed by a small staff and its movements are limited to Kabul. Direct flights from Afghanistan to India are reduced to one Ariana flight per day specifically for patients proceeding to India for medical care. Pakistan appears to be in a win-win situation. However, its covert efforts to target the Indian embassy personnel/building are stopped by the Taliban regime— Pashtunwali still works.
By early 2021 complete Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban. As the Taliban government becomes stable, Afghan differences with Pakistan over the Durand Line surface. At the same time Taliban help to the ETIM gives a fillip to Uyghur militancy. Under Chinese pressure, Pakistan takes steps to secure the CPEC leading to some clashes with the Taliban which worsen with time and creates a major rift in their relations. India plays its cards deftly. The Taliban gradually accept Indian help for development in Afghanistan. Money for development is something that the cash strapped Pakistanis cannot provide the Taliban. More so when no other power has any interest to provide aid for development in Afghanistan. TTP and Afghan Taliban get closer together with the common aim of merging the Pashtun areas of Pakistan with Afghanistan and undo the travesty of British colonialism. Pakistan’s Western border dilemma re-emerges.