It’s been almost two months since the President of the United States (US) Joe Biden announced that the US will pull its troops back from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021- the 20th anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. In his April 13th announcement, President Biden stated that the “war in Afghanistan was not meant to be a multigenerational undertaking” and America has achieved the goals with which it went into Afghanistan and and “it was time (for US) to end the forever war”.[i]Following suit, NATO stated that its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan would also be departing within a few months.
Biden’s predecessor, the Trump administration had reached an agreement with the Taliban on 29th February 2020 in Doha, Qatar to ensure US’s exit from Afghanistan. One of the important provisions of the deal was the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Ever since assuming office, President Biden was faced with the choice of either keeping to the May 1 deadline or finding other options. In an interview[ii] given to ABC News in March 2021, President Biden reflected on Trump’s deal with the Taliban as “not very solidly negotiated” and indicated that he was in favour of a condition based withdrawal as opposed to a calendar based one. The US had about 2,500 soldiers left in Afghanistan at the time of Biden’s announcement, it had spent trillions of dollars in the conflict and had lost more than 2000 service members since 2001. The departure of the remaining troops amidst alarming escalation in violence and targeted assassination in Afghanistan underline Biden administration’s determination to pull the plug on the American war irrespective of the conditions on the ground.
The Taliban had responded to US’s delayed withdrawal by saying that it has opened the way for them “to take countermeasures, and that the American side will be responsible for all the future consequences, and not the Islamic Emirate.”[iii] The group also refused to take part in the UN-led Peace Conference on Afghanistan that was supposed to be held in Istanbul from 24th April to 4th May 2021.[iv] Despite initially stating that it would not engage in any international peace effort until foreign military presence is ended in Afghanistan, the Taliban negotiators were seen participating in the Doha negotiations in May, 2021.[v] This leads us to the questions- now that the US troops are pulling out, what is Biden administration’s roadmap for Afghanistan? What are the implications of the international troop pullout for Afghanistan? Is there any consensus for peace in Afghanistan? And finally, how has India responded to Biden’s exit plan? This Special Paper attempts to deliberate on some of these issues.
Biden Administration’s Blueprint for Afghanistan
Biden administration’s first formal roadmap regarding Afghanistan was first visible in the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter[vi] to the Afghan President on 7th of March 2021.The letter provided a blueprint to accelerate the stalled peace process. Some key suggestions were: 1) A proposal for a UN-facilitated meeting between foreign ministers of key regional stakeholders, including Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US, in order to discuss a common approach towards supporting the peace process in Afghanistan. 2) To jumpstart the discussions of ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to share a draft peace agreement with Kabul and the Taliban leadership. It was also accompanied by another proposal in favour of creation of a transitional peace government which will be a temporary arrangement until a new constitution and a permanent government are formed. 3) A high-level meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Turkey to finalise the peace agreement. 4) A new proposal to bring about a “reduction in violence” within three months.
The letter clearly indicated that Washington was cognizant of the crucial role that regional countries will be required to play in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops, therefore gave significant stress on a regional consensus on Afghanistan, to ensure that there is a coordinated approach in formulating their political, economic and developmental contributions towards Afghanistan. While the inclusion of key regional players who had played active role in the Afghan peace process like Pakistan, China and Russia was expected, the inclusion of India and Iran was a welcome development.
Another important feature of the Washington’s blueprint was the selection of Turkey as the new venue for peace negotiations. There were several conjectures behind that move- factors ranging from Turkey being a major NATO ally from the Muslim world to Turkey’s good relations with Taliban’s puppet masters in Pakistan (the two formed a strategic alliance in recent years), the objective of rejuvenation of US’s ties with Ankara dented under the Trump administration and Turkey as a host of significant Afghan refugee population (which would therefore be keen to see a political solution of Afghanistan’s problems), were among the points doing the rounds in order to find a rationale behind the US move. However, after the Taliban refused to take part in the conference citing delayed departure of the Western troops, the same got postponed indefinitely.[vii]
Biden’s exit plan clearly indicated that US is no longer responsible for nation building any longer, neither is it responsible for keeping the present political dispensation in power. In fact, Blinken’s blue print did indicate US’s preference for a transitional government as a way forward, since without that the Taliban are not likely to be part of any interim arrangement. Meanwhile, the Afghan peace process that got a boost in September 2020 after the two warring factions agreed to begin the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, hardly made any progress in the past few months. The need for a substantial push to the peace talks was widely recognised and Blinken’s letter to Kabul was seen to provide that. In an attempt to complement other international efforts to support the peace process in Afghanistan, Russia hosted a conference on 18th March which was attended by representatives of Russia, US, China and Pakistan as well as an Afghan government delegation and representatives of the Taliban. It was supposed to be followed by the ten day Istanbul Conference. Expectedly, violence had intensified in Afghanistan since the United States missed the May 1 deadline, however just before the Eid al-Fitr, a three day ceasefire was agreed upon by the warring Taliban and the Afghan government. [viii] According to reports the two sides met in Doha on the second day of the three day ceasefire to speed up the stalled peace talks.[ix] Although the major outcomes of that meeting remain unknown, it is expected that these initiatives will continue both during and after the US troops pullout.
What does troops withdrawal mean for Afghanistan?
Responding to the question about the implications of the US troops withdrawal on the Afghan government at a panel discussion, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said that this was a great opportunity for Afghanistan to take control of its own security situation-“Afghanistan does not need US combat troops on the ground, rather what is needed is the support to ANDSF. An assurance for a continuation of this has been provided”.[x] President Ghani also forwarded a brave front at an online event when he assured that the “Afghan government is not at risk of collapse” as America’s allies announced to withdraw foreign forces from the country in the next few months.[xi] Indicating the crucial role Pakistan, he said that the announcement of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces has also created a moment of choice for Pakistan, which is likely to play in deciding the future course for Afghanistan and the region at large:“For Pakistan, it is a decision of destiny. Will it opt for regional cooperation, international partnership, and regional prosperity through joint efforts, or will it…support and sustain the Taliban and the wave of extremism for which Pakistan next to Afghanistan has probably paid the highest price? So, it is a moment of decision (for Pakistan).”[xii] Just days after the US military formally began withdrawing its remaining troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s second biggest dam in Afghanistan- Dalha Dam in the Kandahar province.[xiii]The Taliban also overran a key army air base in Ghazni Province and are said to have gained enough grounds to encircle some provincial capitals.[xiv] Reportedly fighting is ongoing in 28 provinces (out of 34 provinces) of the country with unprecedented death toll on the ANDSF.[xv]
Former Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, who is now Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute said that the real question at this point for Kabul is “Whether after withdrawing its troops, the US will continue to help the Kabul government and will the Afghan people be able to keep the Taliban at bay?”[xvi] US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reassured that the US will continue to provide the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government and the Afghan people resources and capabilities, training and equipment for their forces but insisted that “the Afghan people have to step up to defend their own country.”[xvii] Whatever financial package or technical support the US may or may not offer to Afghanistan, the question remains will that be enough for the Afghan government to outlast the kind of pressure they will face from Afghan Taliban?
There were reports that some US officials had criticised Biden’s decision, who saw this as a grave mistake that will embolden the Taliban and lead to more violence. The Wall Street Journal reported that General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Austin Miller, who leads NATO forces in Afghanistan, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all recommended retaining the current force of 2,500 troops while stepping up diplomacy to try to cement a peace agreement.[xviii]While there is a recognition that Biden’s decision is bound to have adverse implications, some analysts are also seeing this as a way to put more pressure on the Ghani government to get its act together and start creating the conditions for the negotiations to take place, as that would be the way forward.
Consensus for Peace
Undeniably, amongst the Afghan political elite there is a consensus for peace, but no one is willing to pay a price for it. In the recent past, the call for President Ghani to step down in the interest of peace has gathered momentum. The proposal for a transitional government in Afghanistan, that can accommodate the Taliban have been doing the rounds after it was mentioned in the US draft plan. One scenario is, the establishment of that transitional/interim government where they come to some power-sharing arrangement and reduction of violence. In that case the leadership of that interim government will be discussed and decided by the Taliban and the Kabul elite. Quite evidently, Ghani’s chances of heading such an arrangement is extremely limited. Not only Taliban, a large section of the Kabul elite might not accept him, which is why President Ghani has been insisting that the constitutional transfer of power through elections remains an uncompromisable principle, knowing well that elections in present situation is inconceivable. A second prospective scenario is that there is no arrangement between any side and there is a collapse of the state, then the question is- will Ghani be able to sustain his current position? It is fair to state that, whichever way one looks at the current scenario, the position of Ashraf Ghani’s government appears to be vulnerable and fragile.
The current scenario in Afghanistan has drawn comparisons to the post-Soviet withdrawal period in the country. It is increasingly being realised if the different political interlocutors and former Mujahideen leaders in Afghanistan lose faith in the Ghani Presidency Mujahideen leaders have enough capital- military, financial and political to battle it out with the Taliban or at least they can hold territories. Under such circumstances, the inevitability of civil war can hardly be questioned. After Biden’s announcement, former Mujahideen leader Mohammad Ismail Khan had warned that Afghanistan will be plunged into another civil war if the US leaves without a political settlement. While addressing his supporters in Herat--most of whom were armed—Khan said peace is the first choice, but reiterated that the people are ready to fight as well.[xix] Other political figures including presidential adviser Mohammad Mohaqiq said, “a complete civil war can be expected after the withdrawal of foreign forces.” The son of Ahmad Shah Massoud has also warned of a civil war after the US forces withdraw and if the situation is not managed well - “The war will be more complicated than the past and more intensive--more bloody than the past.”[xx]
Ambassador Amar Sinha, India’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan has an interesting take on the international troops withdrawal. According to him, Biden’s announcement has brought a sense of finality to Afghanistan’s endless war. So far Taliban’s central narrative was that Jihad will continue till the foreign troops are there- “now they have to invent a new narrative” about why they would want to continue a war. Afghan government needs to take control of the situation and “make it an Afghan owned process- in 2016 they had great success without anybody’s involvement…after all it managed to bring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back.” He viewed the recent developments as a great opportunity for the Afghan leaders and to play an active role “in bringing back their estranged (Taliban) brothers.”[xxi]
The Head of Afghanistan’s Reconciliation Committee, Dr. Abdullah has advised the Taliban against imposing conditions after the US withdrawal. The Istanbul Conference is the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s plan to fast-track diplomatic push for a political settlement with the Taliban. The idea was to provide an opening for key regional partners to come together and establish a regional forum in order to help Afghanistan stabilize and help the Afghan government in its pursuit of security and stability while it negotiates with the Taliban. Washington at this point needs more allies who can support Afghanistan in a more hands-on manner and not just in terms of public posturing. India has forged a credible development partnership with Kabul over the past twenty years. Even through this critical phase of Afghanistan’s transition, it signed a MoU with Kabul for the construction of Lalandar (Shatoot )Dam and announced at least 150 new projects and has pledged to rebuild Afghanistan committing to $80 million worth of projects to carry forward the longterm commitment towards the socio-economic development of Afghanistan.[xxii] India’s substantial contribution as Afghanistan’s development partner made it imperative for Washington to reserve a seat for New Delhi at the Istanbul Conference along side Pakistan, Russia and Iran.
India has participated in the Doha Conference, the Geneva Conference and recently, the Heart of Asia Conference in Dushanbe. Over the past year, several high-profile visits have taken place between the two countries. As Afghanistan’s largest regional donor, with development assistance projects worth approximately $3 billion, spread across all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, New Delhi continues to remain engaged with the major Afghan stakeholders, cutting across ethnic lines. India has been constantly assessing the situation is Afghanistan. The undeclared visit of India’s NSA Ajit Doval to Kabul[xxiii], early this year at a crucial period of Afghanistan’s transition was a signal that India has increasingly become serious not only about the situation on the ground but also its own position vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The question at the forefront in the minds of Indian policy makers in Delhi would be pertaining to the feasibility of the Ghani government and the wider governmental umbrella in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
The official statement issued by the MEA Spokesperson after Biden’s announcement stated[xxiv] that India has “noted” the decision of the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and to end its military operations there - “We are closely following the ongoing intra-Afghan peace process. Afghan people have seen more than four decades of war and unrest and deserve long-lasting peace and development.” The MEA statement further reiterated India’s traditional position that an Afghan peace process should be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” and that any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past two decades. New Delhi also expressed its concern about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan and called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire.
There was a signal of a subtle shift in India’s position with respect to Taliban in the recent past when, while speaking at the 9th Heart of Asia Conference in Tajikistan, the Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM), Dr. S. Jaishankar stated that India supports talks between Afghan government and the Taliban, while at the same time called for a “double peace” both inside Afghanistan and the region.[xxv]Former Indian Envoy to Afghanistan, Amb.Vivek Katju, opined that the signal or shift has not gone far enough. He argued that if India wishes to be a major player or a player of any consequence in Afghanistan, India must have open links with all political players in Afghanistan and that includes that Taliban – “For some reason India has stubbornly refused to have open contact with the Taliban…that has weakened our position in terms of peace making.” He pointed out that India is the only country, among the group of countries which the US foresees playing an important role; that does not have an official channel with the Taliban. Being probed at a panel discussion on whether India wants to open communications with the Taliban, EAM stated that this was not an issue to be discussed in public, he added- “but this situation is evolving, and obviously everybody wants to have make the best contribution that they can and shape the outcomes in Afghanistan as positively as they can.”[xxvi] The question also remains whether the Taliban can afford to be seen talking to India openly, as that might entail encountering lots of questions from the Pakistani intelligence agency, that is perhaps a compulsion that they have not been able to liberate themselves out of. Dr. Paliwal views this as the “ultimate litmus test of their foreign policy independence in Afghanistan”[xxvii], which he does not foresee happening in the short run.
As former Defence Secretary Gen. James Mattis once said, “US does not lose wars, it only loses interest.”[xxviii] With the US signaling that their interest is Afghanistan is dwindling, the responsibility will primarily be upon Afghans to take control of the future of their country. The next few months will be crucial in taking the negotiations forward and hopefully reaching on a political settlement. The role of Afghan leadership and the leadership in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries will be significant in determining the path Afghanistan eventually takes. Biden’s announcement on the pullback of troops came on 13th April. The very next day, 14th April 2021 marked the 33rdAnniversary of the signing of the 1988 Geneva Accord that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan –the sense of history and irony is difficult to overlook. The only hope is that there is not a repeat of the scenario that was witnessed 33 years back, although there seems a very strong possibility for history repeating itself in Afghanistan.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “Joe Biden explains US Troops withdrawal from Afghanistan”. CNN, April 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=un1CcbrkuZ0 (Accessed on 16.4.2021)
[ii]“Biden says ‘tough’ to meet May 1 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline”. Al Jazeera, March 17, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/17/biden-says-afghanistan-withdrawal-deadline-of-may-1-tough (Accessed on 16.4.2021)
[vii]Jeyhun Aliyev, “Istanbul Conference of Afghan Peace Postponed: Turkey”, April 21, 2021. Available at: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/istanbul-conference-on-afghan-peace-postponed-turkey/2215223(Accessed on 22.5.2021)
[xiii] “Taliban Terrorists Capture key dam in Afghanistan”, The Hindustan Times, May 6, 2021. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/taliban-terrorists-capture-key-dam-in-afghanistan-101620295449169.html. (Accessed on 25.5.2021)
[xiv] “Historic rise in Taliban attacks could “make or break” Afghan peace process”.TRT World, May 19, 2021. Available at: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/historic-rise-in-taliban-attacks-could-make-or-break-afghan-peace-process-46846(Accessed on 25.5.2021)
[xxiii] “Ajit Doval goes to Kabul, Focus on Terror”.The Indian Express, January 14, 2021. Available at:https://indianexpress.com/article/india/ajit-doval-goes-to-afghanistan-focus-on-terror-7145469/ (Accessed on 26.5.2021)
[xxvi] #Raisina 2021 Panel Discussion: “Junction Kabul: The Road to Peace”, April 16, 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy59RneQguI&t=844s Accessed on? (Accessed on 26.5.2021)