The US also did not expect the rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which has left Afghanistan in chaos
America’s secretary of state Antony Blinken earlier this week faced the US House Foreign Affairs Committee for the first time since the destabilising US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the real surprise was that not only the Republican Congressmen excoriated him, but his own party’s representatives also posed tough questions.
Mr Blinken, of course, offered the standard alibis that his boss, US President Joe Biden, has been dispensing ever since Kabul fell to the Taliban fighters on August 15. One, he said that Mr Biden had inherited a bad deal that the US had negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020 under President Donald Trump. The alternative to US troop withdrawal was escalation and more loss of US lives. The Trump administration had ordered the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including top war commanders, when the US had only 2,500 troops deployed to defend Afghanistan. The US also did not expect the rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which has left Afghanistan in chaos. In fact, he added, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had told him a day before he fled that he would fight to death.
Mr Blinken also shared that the US was conducting “intense diplomacy” with its allies and partners. India has meanwhile been reiterating the message contained in UN Security Council Resolution 2593, passed on August 30, under India’s chairmanship. The core principles in that are the need for Afghanistan to uphold human rights, including of women and the minorities, not to allow its territory to be used for sheltering, aiding and abetting terror abroad and finally to allow safe passage to Afghans and foreigners wishing to travel abroad. Sadly, Russia and China abstained from it, making them alongside Pakistan as the three states most likely to be least condemnatory of the Taliban.
Interestingly, it was Pakistan that found itself at the receiving end at the US House of Representatives hearing. The attack came from both sides of the political divide, forcing Mr Blinken to concede that the United States would look at “the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years” — that is, ever since the 9/11 attacks on America. The clear implication was that finally the US was confronting the truth that it had known all along — that Pakistan was indeed a “major non-Nato ally”, as it had been christened, as indeed the Taliban’s creator, protector and mentor. This was known a decade ago when Osama bin Laden was eliminated in a secret US raid on a house in Abbottabad, without informing the Pakistanis as they were not trusted. Suddenly, now with the US embarrassed by the sudden rise to power of the Taliban, the thoughts about Pakistani duplicity are out in the open. The gloating in Pakistan has only added to the ire.
Some of the questioning at the hearing shifted the debate to what the US plans to do next in the region to safeguard its interests and ensure that the Taliban sticks to the red lines laid down in UNSC Resolution 2593. Mr Blinken summed up the conundrum by saying that while Pakistan has a multiplicity of interests, there are “some that are in conflict with ours”.
Clearly, the US will now reassess its relations with Pakistan, but this public posturing may be more to bring Pakistan to heel rather than begin sanctioning or punishing it. Linked to that were questions about US-India relations and whether India, as Republican Congressman Mark Green put it, could be a possible staging area for an “over the horizon” response. India has never allowed a foreign power to operate a military base on its soil. The closest that India has militarily cooperated with the US has been within the four-nation Quad framework.
Allowing the US to operate militarily from Indian soil would have major implications. For one, China would see India as having moved deeper into the US embrace. Next, the Taliban may, currently less than warm towards India, turn into a declared enemy. But what can be expected is for India and the US to have closer coordination on how to use the full spectrum of economic and security levers to keep the Taliban from either becoming isolationist pariahs or Pakistani errand boys.
It is good to remember that US-Pakistan relations have a history of close collaboration followed by a vicious falling out. After their joint campaign to use jihad to eject the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1979-88 period, the US suddenly discovered in 1990 the Pressler Amendment of 1985. Under this law, US sanctions had to kick in once the US administration could not annually certify that “Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device”. This certification continued so long as Pakistan was strategically needed by the US in the anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan. The question that now arises is how this history might get replayed and what are the Indian options.
Both Russia and China would want stability to be quickly restored in Afghanistan with minimum international attention drawn by the Taliban’s governance. The Taliban also needs the major powers, including the G-7, to quickly recognise its interim government. So far, their record is poor. Not only have they used brute force and not negotiations to bring the rebellious Panjshir Valley under control but rumours have swirled about Mullah Baradar getting injured in factional fighting. This was denied via a delayed video tape, but meanwhile added to the uncertainty. The kidnapping of an Indian indicates the possibility of such acts feeding public concern in India. Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla recalled the 500 projects across 34 provinces of Afghanistan, costing nearly $3 billion, as proof that “India’s destiny is inextricably linked with its neighbours”.
These are brave words as revolutionary regimes can often have conflicting visions that belie such hope. India will simply have to wait and watch before stepping into the mess that Afghanistan has now slipped into. The Biden administration is receiving political flak at home and thus can be expected to blame Pakistan or others to evade its own responsibility. But for India the best path is to work with Iran and Russia to engage whoever controls Kabul to ensure that those opposed to Indian interests are contained. Meanwhile, Pakistan can be expected to try replaying its 1990s game to destabilise Jammu and Kashmir via non-state actors. For starters, the BJP needs to curtail its communal discourse in Uttar Pradesh, which is headed for Assembly polls in the early part of 2022.
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.