India rattled by US Afghanistan withdrawal, experts say

New Delhi fears extremist groups could exploit power vacuum left by US military exit

An Afghan army soldier stand guard as smoke rises from a burning fuel tanker on the Jalalabad-Kabul highway, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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The official announcement of the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has put India on edge, raising fears that a power vacuum could destabilise the region.

The deadlocked peace process with the Taliban and the growing geo-political uncertainty in the region have set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, where stability in Afghanistan is seen as crucial to the security of the subcontinent.

Tensions with neighbouring Pakistan, a firm supporter of the Taliban which India has accused of backing several insurgent groups targeting it, have risen amid fears that the US military withdrawal could allow extremism to flourish.

“Our concern is that the vacuum that will be created by the withdrawal of the United States and Nato should not create space for disruptors,” Bipin Rawat, the Indian chief of defence staff, told a security conference last week.

US President Joe Biden announced this month that all US forces will be withdrawing from Afghanistan by September 11. The other Nato forces followed suit and also announced their intention to withdraw with the US.

The decision follows the agreement made with the Taliban by the previous US administration last year, albeit with a five-month delay in the withdrawal deadline, which has upset the Taliban leadership, prompting them to withdraw entirely from the peace process.

The Taliban, in response, have threatened to escalate violence if the foreign troops did not leave by the previously agreed May 1 deadline.

They also announced that they would not be attending the intra-Afghan talks scheduled in Istanbul for later this month, pushing the already-delayed peace process into rocky waters.

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2011 file photo, US soldiers sit beneath an American flag just raised to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s surprise announcement in April 2021, of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, appears to strip the Taliban and the Afghan government of considerable leverage, pressuring them to reach a peace deal. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by September 11. AP

India and Pakistan have been divided over Afghanistan for decades.

Pakistan, largely through its feared intelligence agency, the ISI, backed the Taliban movement as it rose to power in the late 1990s, while India supported the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of anti-Taliban fighters and warlords based in northern Afghanistan.

India’s support for the Northern Alliance was particularly strong during the years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, when it supplied weapons and equipment to the faction as it fought the Taliban for territory.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Islamabad, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said Afghanistan's neighbours "have very often played a negative role".

“The neighbours also need to lay off Afghanistan and let the Afghan people do what is in their best interest,” he said at the Raisina Dialogue.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attends a news conference following talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi, India, April 6, 2021. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who 'decided to conduct engagements in the virtual mode'. Reuters

With the balance of power in Afghanistan again approaching a shift as American troops prepare to leave, some officials have accused the US of abandoning the war-torn country.

“Effectively, the US is abandoning a generation of Afghans that the international community, including India, have nourished Afghanistan over the last 20 years,” said Gautam Mukhopadhya, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan.

“The Taliban will have even less incentive to share power. Much will depend on whether the Taliban do negotiate with Afghan political leaders and whether they reach agreement. Those that are left out could become focal points of resistance,” he said.

Mr Mukhopadhya was among the first foreign diplomats to return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001.

Flying into Bagram air base that winter, Mr Mukhopadhya and the Indian delegation hoped to renew his country’s relationship with Afghanistan, which had been put on hiatus after the Taliban seized Kabul more than five years earlier.

The Afghanistan he knew had been destroyed and set back by decades.

“I don’t think the Taliban mindset has changed. They remain an atavistic force that cannot meet the aspirations of new Afghanistan,” he added.

Since 2001, India has invested around $3 billion in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan - the largest amount of aid it has given to any country.

But analysts fear that much of this investment could be lost to the Taliban, with the group emboldened by the departure of departing foreign forces.

“India has everything to lose with a stronger Taliban,” said Kriti Mathur Shah, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in India.

“India’s many investments, in every single province in Afghanistan, are at high risk, should the Taliban begin destroying public property and infrastructure,” she said.

Afghan opposition Northern Alliance soldiers leap over a trench as they
return from front line positions after battle near the town of Charatoy
in the north of Afghanistan October 10, 2001. Afghanistan's ruling
Taliban gave Osama bin Laden free rein to wage holy war on the United
States as Washington said its war planes had the run of the Afghan
skies. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Northern Alliance soldiers leap over a trench in the north of Afghanistan in 2001. India backed the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan supported the Taliban. Reuters

An increasingly confident Taliban, buoyed by the claimed victory over the departing US, “would mean an emboldened Rawalpindi,” she added, referring to the city where Pakistan’s military is headquartered. This, she said, could carry over into the Kashmir conflict.

The Taliban have not been involved in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, calling it India’s “internal matter”.

But Ms Mathur Shah warned that this stance could change if the Taliban take power again.

Meanwhile, India has consistently backed an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” political resolution to the conflict.

A spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said: “Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years.”

India, the spokesperson said, was closely monitoring the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan.

And even though India may outwardly welcome a Taliban power-sharing government in Afghanistan, officials will have reservations, said Mr Mukhopadhya, the former ambassador.

A collapse of current systems and civil war seems a distinct Trump-Biden legacy

“If the Taliban come [to power] as part of an inclusive power-sharing agreement, India can preserve its relationship albeit not as smoothly as before,” he said. “However, that seems a remote possibility now.”

Instead, he said, India may adopt a similar policy to the last time the Taliban came to power, and wait for its rule to collapse.

“Given the presence or activities of Al Qaeda, ISIS, the ISI in Afghanistan, and regional discomfort with the Taliban, there is little guarantee that the Taliban will be able to provide stability,” he said. “A collapse of current systems and civil war seems a distinct Trump-Biden legacy.”

Despite having much at stake, India has so far limited its engagement in the peace process.

Some experts said India should seek a more proactive role.

“The only opportunity [for India] is to play a role in reconciliation,” Mr Mukhopadhya said.

“Beyond that, India can and should remain a source of refuge, comfort, capacity-building, education and a market for Afghanistan,” he said.

“The International Community should not give up on Afghanistan as if it does not belong to this planet. It should remain engaged. Otherwise, it will haunt them again.”