Wednesday, 25 August 2021

U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan Risks Fueling a New India-Pakistan Proxy War

Published in Analytical Articles

By Umair Jamal

August 25, 2021, the CACI Analyst

For more than two decades, India has openly opposed any prospect of the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan. New Delhi has continued to oppose the Taliban even in the face of the international community’s ongoing effort to engage the group to find a negotiated settlement. Pakistan, on the other hand, supports efforts to engage the Taliban in an attempt to bring the Taliban back to power. After the collapse of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Islamabad believes that it has scored a major win against India as it can isolate New Delhi’s political influence and interests in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s return to power risks turning Afghanistan into an India-Pakistan proxy battleground.


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BACKGROUND: U.S. troops in Afghanistan have nearly completed their withdrawal. Only a few thousand troops are deployed at the Kabul International Airport to help with the evacuation efforts. The Taliban have said that the U.S. should leave the country by the end of August and have warned of consequences if the U.S. would miss the deadline.

The Afghan peace process has virtually collapsed after the Taliban’s takeover of the country. The peace process that began in 2018 between the U.S. and the Taliban culminated with the signing of the Doha Accord in early 2020, stipulating that all U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan within 14 months and starting conversations regarding the intra-Afghan peace process.

The U.S. has recognized Pakistan’s role in persuading the Afghan Taliban into signing an agreement with the U.S. However, the international community and particularly the U.S., still believes that Pakistan never forced its longtime ally, the Taliban, to agree to a peace deal with other Afghan stakeholders. All available reports indicated that the Taliban would take over the country – something that Pakistan has long wanted to achieve despite pressure from the international community to cease its support for the group. However, few anticipated that the group could take over Kabul or return to power even before the completion of the U.S. force withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is in Pakistan’s interest to push for the formation of an inclusive government representing all major ethnic groups of Afghanistan. If the Taliban seeks to rule Afghanistan by isolating other groups, the country could plunge into instability, which would also impact Pakistan’s security.

Fears are growing that Pakistan could again use the Taliban’s return to power as an opportunity to attack the interests of its longtime foe India. For decades, one of Pakistan’s core interests have revolved around diminishing India’s role in Afghanistan and use the country to push its militaristic policy in the region.

Conversely, India has continually supported the Afghan government and openly opposed the Taliban’s return to power, which would directly challenge India’s interests in Afghanistan. India may therefore see a need for reorienting its Afghan policy and consider the option of opening talks with the Taliban. In any case, Pakistan and India are poised to lock horns again as they strive to support different groups in order to undermine each other’s interests.

IMPLICATIONS: The implications of such a scenario will be significant not only for regional stakeholders but also for the Afghan population. At present, it appears that Pakistan is interested in seeing an inclusive government in Afghanistan as it remains engaged alongside China and Russia. Yet from Islamabad’s perspective, any meaningful outcome of these efforts should offer the Afghan Taliban a major share of power. The peace process was intended to lead to an agreement whereby the Taliban holds a degree of power. And this is what Pakistan has always wanted – a government in Kabul that is friendly to Pakistan.

At the moment, there is an opportunity for Pakistan to look beyond supporting the Afghan Taliban and earn the respect and support of other Afghan stakeholders if Islamabad is truly interested in the Afghan peace process. Amira Jadoon, Assistant Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point told this author that “Pakistan needs to exploit the goodwill that it has earned through its role in the peace process, and its relationship with the Afghan Taliban to promote peace and good governance in Afghanistan and support future power-sharing arrangements.” In this regard, Pakistan’s image-building will have to precede any concrete humanitarian and institutional support and needs to be perceived as an earnest effort by all major Afghan stakeholders.

It remains open to debate what Pakistan can do to earn the trust of all major Afghan stakeholders in a matter of months. Policy makers in Islamabad already believe that they have done enough to show that their efforts are genuine. Whatever those measures may be, they have not helped in changing the attitudes of the Afghan ruling elite towards the Pakistani state’s questionable role in their internal affairs.

This essentially means that if the peace process would not lead to an inclusive government, which appears likely, Pakistan will be forced to double down on its policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban. India, which supports the Northern alliance, the only remaining group that is still opposing the Taliban’s return from the Panjshir province, can be expected to use all available means to bolster the Anti-Taliban alliance. Panjshir is the only remaining province of Afghanistan that is not under Taliban control, and a majority of the military officials and troops that worked for the government of former President Ashraf Ghani have fled to the province.

There have been reports that India is also considering to open direct talks with the Taliban. Addressing the intra-Afghan talks last year, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar repeated his country’s support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process and avoided criticism of the Taliban’s role.

The U.S. would probably like to see New Delhi open direct talks with the group to safeguard its interests. Last year, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad called on India to engage with the Afghan Taliban and “directly discuss its concerns related to terrorism,” adding that Washington wants New Delhi to “take on a more active role in the Afghan peace process.” Apparently, this wish made little difference in New Delhi’s policy making circles as India continues to maintain officially that it will not support the return of a Taliban government in Afghanistan.

This essentially means that India could go back to supporting the Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban during the 1990s and also became a part of the Afghan government after the Taliban government was removed in 2001. India has worked for more than a decade to support different factions in an effort to oppose the Taliban’s return, and is unlikely to change this policy course now.

Violence is likely to mount in Afghanistan in the coming weeks between the Pakistan-supported Taliban and India-supported resistance forces. According to the Doha Accord, U.S. troops were to withdraw by May 1 but the deadline was unilaterally extended by President Biden. A Taliban spokesman said in a statement that the passing of the May 1 deadline was a “violation in principle” that “has opened the way for Taliban fighters to take every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying [foreign] forces.”  

As thousands of people amass at the Kabul International Airport to flee the country, the Taliban have warned that they want all foreign evacuations from the country to be completed by an August 31 deadline and that they will not agree to an extension. The group has also said that it will not form a government until all U.S. troops have left Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, leaders from the top U.S. foreign allies have asked President Biden to extend the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. Reportedly, CIA Director William Burns also held a secret meeting with the Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar to gain his support for an extended deadline.

CONCLUSIONS: Against the backdrop of these developments, regional stakeholders, particularly Pakistan and India, are preparing to support their local factions in Afghanistan. It is possible that as soon as the U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the intra-Afghan peace process and efforts to form an inclusive government will become irrelevant. Pakistan will likely view the situation as another opportunity to isolate India in Afghanistan, while India will expend great effort to hold on to the gains it has made in the country over the last decade. The return of violence and a factional war between the Taliban and other ethnic groups risks starting another proxy war between the two countries. 



Umair Jamal is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand and the Diplomat Magazine’s correspondent in Pakistan. His areas of research include counterterrorism and security issues in the Pak-Afghan region. He has consulted with various think tanks in Pakistan and globally and has published for a number of media outlets including Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy, SCMP, and the Huffington Post. 


Image Source: U.S. Central Command photo by Senior Airman Brandon Cribelar accessed 8.25.2021

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