In December 2017, the Trump administration announced a new national security strategy that sought to shift the focus of the US from combating terrorism to confronting the growing strategic challenge from China and Russia. In April 2021, Donald Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, declared that the US will completely withdraw from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. In his speech, Biden echoed Trump’s National Security Strategy and said that “rather than return to war with the Taliban … we have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.”
On 31 August, 2021, when Biden announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, he justified it by saying that “we’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia … we can do both: fight terrorism and take on new threats that are here now and will continue to be here in the future. And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”
Clearly, like his predecessor, for Biden too, the China challenge trumps the threat from terrorism emanating from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. That the Americans are seeking to confront and compete with China and Russia by ceding strategic space in Afghanistan to both these countries is a rather strange way to join the strategic competition.
If China and Russia, together with some other countries—notably Pakistan—manage to bring stability to Afghanistan, it will mean loss of strategic space for the US and its allies from a very large geography in Asia. On the other hand, if America’s adversaries fail to pacify and normalise Afghanistan—a more likely outcome given that it is Taliban and their disreputable partners like Al Qaeda and other regional and global terror organisations who now have a state to boot—the terrorism challenge will metastasize into an uncontrollable strategic threat. Both these scenarios will seriously impact the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
India, which is a pivotal player in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, has been watching with consternation her strategic environment getting severely disturbed by the shambolic end of the US war in Afghanistan. For many years now, top US officials and policy wonks maintained that while the US and India had 95 percent convergence east of India (read China), they had just 5 percent convergence west of India (read Afghanistan and Pakistan).
To appease the Pakistanis, the Americans were chary of letting India play a bigger role in Afghanistan. The security domain was a virtual no-go area for India. US Congressmen (including some of Indian-origin) would come to India and peddle the Pakistani line that India should keep signing the cheques in Afghanistan but desist from exercising any real influence which would rile the Pakistanis.
Successive Indian governments played along because as long as the US was present in Afghanistan, the danger of Afghanistan becoming a major source of instability and terrorism in the region remained more or less under control. That situation no longer obtains. This means that going forward unless the Indo-US convergence to the west of India matches the convergence to the east of India, it will be difficult for India to partner with the US. In other words, the two countries will now have to work in tandem on both the east and west of India.
Problems for India
It is a no-brainer that the botched US withdrawal has totally fouled up India’s strategic environment. Unlike the US, India does not have the luxury of pretending that Afghanistan does not exist, given the clear and present danger that the nexus between China, Pakistan and a Talibanised Afghanistan will pose to India’s security. Instead of focusing on the east, India will now be forced to divide her attention, energies and resources between her eastern and western flanks. Additionally, given the nature of the threat that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan represents, there is also going to be a third front—internal—that India will need to worry about.
The problem for India will only get further compounded if the US persists in its folly of throwing money at Afghanistan and Pakistan in the fond hope that this will incentivise the terror twins to snuff out the jihad factories that are being nurtured in both these countries. Far from dissuading the terror twins, giving them more money will actually be tantamount to rewarding their rank bad behaviour.
It will embolden them to keep using the instrumentality of terrorism to extort more money from the US and other Western countries. But there is as yet no sign that the US has any intention of turning the screws on both Talibanistan and Pakistan. Quite to the contrary, noises coming out of Washington suggest that not only will there be no consequences that will be visited upon the terror twins, but the US is also actually thinking of entering into a security relationship—intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism (CT) cooperation etc. with them.
The ridiculousness of this new CT strategy is self-evident to anyone with even half a brain. It boggles the mind that top officials in the US can be so obtuse that they are seriously thinking of, and perhaps even preparing to, share intelligence with internationally designated terrorists. What can be crazier than the Americans working with and financing the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which are both closely linked to Al Qaeda to fight the very same Al Qaeda and its associates, or even the over-hyped ISKP?
Equally preposterous is the idea that the Americans want to remain engaged with and will keep plying the Pakistanis with billions of dollars despite their treachery over the last two decades. The country which sabotaged the entire US CT campaign in the region by playing a double game will once again be made a ‘partner’ in combating terrorism? Seriously?
The argument being made by the geniuses plugging this policy is that the US cannot afford to go after Pakistan because of the danger that its nuclear weapons will fall in the wrong hands. Another reason being proffered is that keeping a big presence in Pakistan will help in fighting terrorism. That the Pakistani nuclear weapons are already in the wrong hands is something of a truism. Instead of succumbing to Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail, the US needs to call its bluff. But this simple policy that should have been staring everyone in the face seems to have escaped the guys with fancy Ivy League degrees.
Fix strategic disconnect
As far as India is concerned, unless the US is ready and willing to use its enormous clout to impose crippling political, diplomatic and most of all economic (including trade and financial) sanctions on both Pakistan and Afghanistan, it will be difficult for India to deepen her strategic partnership with the US. Any US assistance to bolster Taliban-run Afghanistan and Pakistan will seriously undermine India’s security. This strategic disconnect needs to be fixed because there is no way that the US and India can work together in the east even as the US actively props up India’s mortal and sworn enemies in the west.
The incongruity of this strategic duality of the Americans becomes starker in light of China—yes, to counter the same country for which US and India are supposedly strategic partners— having emerged as the strongest strategic ally of Pakistan, funding and arming it against India.
Clearly, this is not a tenable situation. Perhaps, the time has come for India to take a leaf out of the US playbook and say: you are either with us or against us. The US needs to be made aware that it is neither possible nor acceptable to compartmentalize the strategic theatres to India’s east and west on the grounds that while the US will work with India in her east, it will work against India in her west.
The author is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.