The outcome will depend on what troops are actually withdrawn.
The surprise resignation by America’s defence secretary James Mattis last week came alongside the news of US President Donald Trump’s decision on significant US troop withdrawals from its last two major military engagements in Syria and Afghanistan. Although Mr Trump, on assuming office in January 2017, had sought American military disengagement abroad, his Cabinet members, like Mr Mattis, a highly decorated retired Marine general, had ensured continuity and in Afghanistan a slight surge without specifying an exit date. This improved the Barack Obama policy of linking withdrawal to deadlines, which encouraged the Taliban to wait out the US’ exit rather than accepting reconciliation and dialogue. Mr Trump has now repeated former President Barack Obama’s error.
Similarly, Syria remains without a final settlement although the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been largely eliminated. The US had backed the Syrian Kurds to clear out ISIS. Consequently, the Kurds have consolidated control over a large area in northeastern Syria. But the last thing that either Iraq, Iran or Turkey want is any quasi-independent Kurdish enclave as it will fire separatist tendencies in their considerable Kurdish populations. Additionally, the Sunni population and the remnants of rebel and jihadist groups, numbering an estimated 2.9 million, are aggregated in Idlib — the last stronghold of the forces ranged against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. The dominant group there is Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS), an Al Qaeda affiliate. To the north are the Turkish forces, which do not want the Syrian regime to attack Idlib and thus cause more human carnage, besides adding to Syria’s three million refugees.
Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, has declared that the Syrian government had every right to “liquidate the terrorist threat on its territory”. An American troop withdrawal at this stage on the pretext of the primary role of eliminating ISIS being accomplished ignores the endgame in Syria, which now seems left to Russia, Iran and Turkey. Israel is watching warily, as crucial Parliament elections have been announced for April, as it wants Iranian influence in any future Syrian political arrangement to be minimal, perceiving Hezbollah’s threat from its Lebanese redoubt.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to rebuild his damaged relations with the United States, shrewdly using the Jamal Khashoggi murder by a Saudi squad in Istanbul. President Trump and the US administration have been trying to exculpate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, while the Turks have countered this by selectively leaking from an elusive tape of the actual murder. President Trump tweeted that President Erdogan informed him that “he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS… and he is a man who can do it, plus Turkey is ‘next door’. Our troops are coming home!”. Syria is thus being outsourced to Turkey, which has its own geopolitical priorities. The Assad regime and Turkey would love to carve up the Kurdish enclave between them. Having used the Kurds to counter a local menace, the US would be abandoning them yet again, like after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 when the Kurds rose in revolt against Saddam Hussein.
Of much greater concern to India, of course, is Afghanistan, where the US is training the Afghan armed forces, conducting counter-insurgency and air operations. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative on Afghanistan, is due to visit India to brief the leadership in New Delhi on his Taliban talks. But the unilateral US announcement poses the question of whether there is some understanding with Taliban or it is an anticipatory concession. It defies normal negotiating logic as a reward for the Taliban joining the reconciliation and dialogue process should have followed, not preceded, their assent. It is also unclear how US pressure on Pakistan, by denial of military assistance funds and complicating of a IMF bailout, ties with troop reduction, which if anything eases future Pakistani machinations in that country.
The outcome will depend on what troops are actually withdrawn. For instance, if the air assistance component is kept intact and only trainers leave, then perhaps the effect may be gradual. The other point will be the funding gap as the US withdraws support. On both these counts India could work with others, like Russia and Japan, to ensure that the Afghan defence forces, already facing large desertions, do not fall apart or stall due to the resource constraint.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has defiantly named known Pakistan and Taliban critics, Assadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh, as the ministers for defence and interior respectively. His spokesman Harron Chakansuri asserted that the US troop withdrawal will have little impact as the Afghan military has managed well despite Nato withdrawing 100,000 troops in 2014. How this bravado translates into reality remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that the Taliban penetration may be deeper in Afghanistan than visible as they have modified their approach. Instead of a frontal assault on government-controlled-urban areas, which Afghan forces with American help eventually regain control of, they are slowly assuming control over tax collection, reopening of schools, and providing stricter but fairer justice. As Ashley Jackson writes in Foreign Policy magazine, they have realised there is “no need to attack symbols of the state if you can instead capture their resources and redirect them to your aims”.
It is reported that India has begun running its designated berths at Iran’s Chabahar port. With Taliban control increasing and Iran having channels open to them, perhaps a modus vivendi can be worked out for meaningful operation of the port for accessing Afghanistan and Central Asia. But the Iranian conduct would be conditioned by their larger standoff with the US over their nuclear programme, their leadership of Shia forces in West Asia via Iraq and their use of surrogates in a contest with the Saudi-led Sunnis, including in the war in Yemen. India will find few reliable allies as it tries stabilising after the US troop withdrawal Afghanistan. An election-distracted BJP government in New Delhi, with its fringe forces baiting the Muslim minority on a daily basis, is poorly equipped to devise a coherent strategy for an Islamic world that has just got much more complex.