US troops to exit Afghanistan after 20 years: What happens next, and what are the risks for India
As reports indicate that the US will be able to wind up its 'forever war' in Afghanistan by this weekend, well ahead of the 11 September deadline, the question that arises is when will the war really be over
After 10 years of waging a war against the Taliban, and another 10 years of vows to withdraw from Afghanistan, the United States under President Joe Biden is finally set to draw out the last of its boots on the ground.
As reports indicate that the US will be able to wind up its 'forever war' in Afghanistan by this weekend, well ahead of the 11 September deadline, the question that arises is when will the war really be over.
For Afghans, the answer is clear but grim: No time soon.
An emboldened Taliban insurgency is making battlefield gains, and prospective peace talks are stalled. Some fear that once foreign forces are gone, Afghanistan will dive deeper into civil war. Though degraded, an Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State extremist network also lurks.
For the United States and its coalition partners, the endgame is murky and non-linear. Although all combat troops and 20 years of accumulated war materiel will soon be gone, the head of US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, will have authority until September to defend Afghan forces against the Taliban.
He can do so by ordering strikes with US warplanes based outside of Afghanistan, according to defence officials who discussed details of military planning Thursday on condition of anonymity.
And for India, which has been deeply invested in supporting a democratic government in the strife-torn nation that has been in disarray since the 1978 Saur Revolution, the potential rise to power of representatives of radical groups does not bode well.
Here's a look at the supposed 'end of the war':
Winding up the combat mission — the situation now: When he decided in April to bring the US war to a close, President Joe Biden gave the Pentagon until 11 September to complete the withdrawal. The Army general in charge in Kabul, Scott Miller, has essentially finished it already, with nearly all military equipment gone and few troops left.
Miller himself is expected to depart in the coming days. But does that constitute the end of the US war? With as many as 950 troops still in the country until September and the potential for continued airstrikes, the answer is probably not.
What does it mean for India? For India, the prospects are largely uncertain as its relationship with the alternate regime is precarious, if not in complete tatters. New Delhi, which has tacitly been supporting a West-installed democratic government against the Taliban rule is suddenly on unchartered plains.
Three months ago, India was hopeful of being given a seat at the table for discussions on the Blinken proposal — a regional conference under the United Nations’ auspices with foreign ministers of six stakeholder countries including India — to discuss a “unified approach” to broker peace between the Afghan government and Taliban.
Today, the proposal seems to have no future.
The Haqqani group, fostered by Pakistan's ISI, would have a larger stake in any Taliban regime. Another concern would be India-focused militants such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, which had melted in and out of the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border under US scrutiny, will now have a free reign to operate, especially since Taliban has reclaimed large swathes of land even in the minority-dominated southern parts of Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the ensuing chaos and rise in attacks also pose a direct threat to over 3,000 Indians who are staying in Afghanistan, most of them working on hundreds of development projects being implemented across the country.
India is the largest regional donor in Afghanistan, with pledges of around $3 billion and the Taliban often attacks these foreign-backed projects such as power plants, highways and other such installations.
What's next: Technically, US forces haven't been engaged in ground combat in Afghanistan since 2014. But counterterrorism troops have been pursuing and hitting extremists since then, including with Afghanistan-based aircraft. Those strike aircraft are now gone and those strikes, along with any logistical support for Afghan forces, will be done from outside the country.
- Inside Afghanistan, US troops will no longer be there to train or advise Afghan forces. An unusually large US security contingent of 650 troops, based at the US Embassy compound, will protect American diplomats and potentially help secure the Kabul international airport.
- Turkey is expected to continue its current mission of providing airport security, but McKenzie will have the authority to keep as many as 300 more troops to assist that mission until September.
- It's also possible that the US military may be asked to assist any large-scale evacuation of Afghans seeking Special Immigrant Visas, although the State Department-led effort may not require a military airlift. The White House is concerned that Afghans who helped the US war effort and are thereby vulnerable to Taliban retribution, not be left behind.
Victory or defeat?: As America's war in Afghanistan draws to a close, there will be no surrender and no peace treaty, no final victory and no decisive defeat.
- The US stand was that the only path to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that said the US would withdraw its troops by May 2021 in exchange for Taliban promises, including that it keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.
- US officials say the Taliban are not fully adhering to their part of the bargain, even as the US continues its withdrawal.
- But Biden says it was enough that US forces dismantled al-Qaida and killed Osama bin Laden, the group's leader considered the mastermind of the 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks on US soil.
- However, another aspect to consider is that lately, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have intensified and the group has taken control of more than 100 district centers.
- Pentagon leaders have responded to this by stating that there's a “medium risk" that the Afghan government and its security forces collapse within the next two years, if not sooner.
A war with no end
The US troop withdrawal doesn't mean the end of the war on terrorism. The US has made it clear that it retains the authority to conduct strikes against al-Qaida or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan if they threaten the US homeland.
Because the US has pulled its fighter and surveillance aircraft out of the country, it must now rely on manned and unmanned flights from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon is looking for basing alternatives for surveillance aircraft and other assets in countries closer to Afghanistan. As yet, no agreements have been reached.
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