Afghanistan: US not wanting a war while having it too

Mayank Chhaya-

With the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan now expected to be complete about a month earlier—instead of by September 11, by August end—the overarching question is how and to what extent Washington will remain militarily engaged with Kabul.

Eric Schmitt of The New York Times reports that one way the U.S. military will help is via teleconference. In a sense we might see the emergence of the idea of Zooming a war or phoning it in as it were. Add to that the armed drones which have been used for a long time, and often to devastating collateral damage, and you have all the makings of a long-distance war.

This is as the Taliban goes on gobbling up district after district—they already control about 70 out of a total of 421—and eventually, train their guns on Kabul. In the last 24 hours alone 13 more districts are reported to have fallen to the Taliban onslaught. The tired cliché of history repeating itself does not seem to have tired much in Afghanistan. Two decades after the U.S. ran out of the Taliban, the Taliban is now running out the U.S. in a manner of speaking. Are we going to witness the emergence of Talibanistan? We don’t know yet but it is not altogether inconceivable.

Three external players are crucial here—Pakistan, India and China. All three have significant geostrategic stakes there; Islamabad, naturally, more than New Delhi and Beijing but India is not that far behind. For Beijing though it is a bigger, newer game to control a mineral-rich country.

For Pakistan, the challenge is direct and existential since the Taliban no longer listen to their progenitors in any serious way.

For President Joe Biden, who turned out to be the man to bring the troops home unlike his three immediate predecessors Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, this is such a dichotomous sell. On the one hand, he has to convince the Americans that he is the one ending forever wars but on the other he also has to convince Afghanistan that he still has their back. It is like not wanting your war and having it too.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is in a dire contradictory grip as well. He told The New York Times in an interview, ““Given that the US gave a date of withdrawal, from then onward, our leverage diminished on the Taliban. And the reason is that the moment the US gave a date of exit, Taliban basically claimed victory. They’re thinking that they won the war.” At the same time he has long spoken in terms the US military presence in Afghanistan being detrimental to that country’s quest for a semblance of normalcy.

Khan believes that if the Taliban goes out for an all-out military victory in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, there would be a civil war in Afghanistan. A protracted civil war in Afghanistan means Pakistan having to deal with millions of refugees. There are already three million Afghan refugee in Pakistan.

An economically weakened Pakistan has a direct bearing on India as well because it makes them even more unpredictable than they already are.

With no American presence, Afghanistan has every prospect of sliding back into misanthropic anarchy. It is ironic that because even the with US in charge it was only slightly better, especially for the women of the country. If you are an Afghani girl or woman, even “slightly” better makes a whole lot of difference. From now on it is all going to be menacing for them.

The visuals of the U.S. troops leaving the Bagram Air Base, the last Afghan airbase to be given up by Washington, were striking in how abandoned the place already looks at first glance. This was the nerve center of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan for two decades. In a weird way, it felt like what those cavernous wedding tents, Mandaps, feel like once the wedding festivities are over. The post-wedding ceremony, you see overturned chairs and plates laced with half-eaten food. The humming martial sounds appear to have ceased at Bagram for now. It is not a given that the Afghans will be able to manage and maintain the massive physical infrastructure left behind by the Americans. If the look and feel of its cities is any guide, not well at all.

There had to come a point where the U.S. had to leave Afghans to decide for themselves what they want to do with Afghanistan. The only problem is that with the U.S. gone, Pakistan and China together would attempt to make their presence felt with India not being far behind. Russia, the original tormentor of Afghanistan, too might sneak in at some point.

India has historically avoided any significant military engagement with other countries, with the one big exception being Sri Lanka in the 1980s. If the Taliban eventually takes control of Kabul, New Delhi will have no choice but to work with them, particularly with its eye on the Kashmir Valley where the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to completely reset the structural equations after abrogating Article 370. The extremist spillovers from the emboldened Taliban have a potential consequence for separatist violence in the Kashmir Valley.

In short, the mess and the ferment and the torment will continue for the foreseeable future.