Helicopters evacuating American troops from Kabul as the Taliban took over the Presidential Palace in the country’s capital was quite similar to the 1975 fall of Saigon in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam which gives birth to the most fundamental question: Why is the U.S. in such a hurry to end the forever war?
Checking the boxes from history, President Biden from the very start was persistently the biggest skeptic of the military’s recommendations in 2009. During the Obama administration, the U.S. military wanted more troops to execute an expansive counterinsurgency mission in an attempt to stabilize Afghanistan, as was done in Iraq. He argued that building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan was unattainable if the government’s a criminal syndicate, then, how will troops make a difference? They were just prolonging failure at that stage. The Afghan-Taliban posed a limited threat to the U.S. He further questioned intelligence reports depicting the Taliban as a new al-Qaeda recruiting foreign fighters that proposed a transnational terrorist threat and there was no evidence that the Pashtun Taliban forecasted a global jihadist ideology, let alone designs on the American homeland.
Now that he’s serving the United States as President, his justification for ending the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan is important for coping with new challenges from a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. Empirically, this withdrawal could strengthen the United States. In three major ways, this could also liberate military assets currently bound in Afghanistan, allowing them to redeploy to the Indo-Pacific coliseum and knocking down the Great Wall of Sand in South China Sea. Secondly, it could free up the diplomatic and bureaucratic connections and efforts of the U.S. officials, allowing them to dedicate the time and attention to China otherwise consumed by the Afghan imbroglio. Lastly, it could save the U.S. government finances, unlocking billions of dollars better devoted to fund initiatives that could have elevated America’s standing in its competition under the ostensible ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations by China.
For India, which sees China as a greater threat than Pakistan, the Biden administration’s focus on balancing China is certainly welcome. The convergence between India and the US interests in the Indo-Pacific rapidly grew in the Trump administration and has continued during Biden's tenure. The Biden administration’s ambitious plans for the Quadrilateral Security dialogue (a coalescing strategic partnership with Australia, India and Japan known as “Quad”) have put India at the very top of USA’s list of strategic priorities.
Afghanistan: From the eyes of China — As the Americans leave, Chinese wish to fill the power vacuum
China doesn’t tend to recognise Afghanistan through the spectrum of opportunities but clearly about controlling threats. The presence of the U.S. was acknowledged as a geopolitical threat, much like the Soviet Union’s military presence in the ‘80s, but China had grown to see it as the lesser of two evils. China precisely has substantial commercial and economic profits in the wider region. Its crucial investments in the region include the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects, which have stayed in equilibrium (Chinese developed strategy: 'let the Americans and their coalitions “of the willing” spend their blood and money intervening in resource-rich countries, and when they tire and withdraw, the Chinese will take the treasure at a low cost,' same is the case with Afghanistan. In 2006, Chinese owned Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) “won the bid” on the Aynak Copper Deposit and assisted the GoIRA. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation won the bid for three Amu Darya basin exploratory blocks) for years. China then figured not to build any cross-border infrastructure through the Wakhan Corridor, despite Afghan (then, Ghani Government) government requests, effectively leaving a geopolitical buffer with its neighbour. Any potential cross-border issues that have been inclined to be focused on Central Asia and Pakistan is one of the reasons why Chinese personnel have been seen around the Tajik border along Afghanistan. In the longer narrative, Chinese concerns about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have tended to be extensively out of sync with the threat posed by Uyghurs caught up in the militant networks in this region.
China promises development and delivers debt
With China’s art of lubricating countries into its debt trap, it will attempt to lure Afghanistan as well into its ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. This adds to its value chain and a pipeline of resource wealth. As far as resource-rich countries go, Afghanistan is relatively easy to lock in contracts for the development of minerals, oil, natural gas, or anything for that matter. It is geostrategically situated in an impasse linking the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe. This is where China’s Belt & Road Initiative and geopolitical ties with Iran and Pakistan come in. China would presumably include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that would then connect to Kandahar via a new railway. The idea is that railroads would provide the necessary supply routes needed to get the resources in and out of Afghanistan. It would be then included in revitalising the New Digital Silk Road. Also, PRC has sought confidence that Muslim extremists will not use Afghan soil as a base to fuel agitation in its neighbouring region of Xinjiang. On the other hand, India is a driving force behind 500 projects across the world but none of the nations had ever witnessed any concerns of debt trap from India’s side.
Rules of Engagement for India
The U.S. withdrew from its responsibilities with a debt of honour to the Afghans who put their trust and lives in American hands which is now leaving Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries in a cataclysm, especially, India. This will impact India’s relations with the US, China, and Russia: greater cooperation with the US, deeper conflicts with Xi, and wider fissures in the traditional strategic partnership with Russia.
India’s concerns about cross-border terrorism will mount with the return of Afghanistan to Taliban rule. Since everyone wants to gain control over Kashmir, India will be encircled by all its rival borders. Keeping in mind that the weapons Taliban have were once supplied to them with the help of Pakistan, by the U.S. government. This would eventually lead to an illegal inflow of Taliban weapons in Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan being a safe haven for extremists and pan islamists in present times, Taliban offshoot may get active around Kashmir. They will cease every opportunity to infiltrate India's borders. With restoration of 4G services in Kashmir after 18 months, Taliban propaganda might instigate anti-India sentiment which could hype-up trouble in the valley. Thus, India will be on the frontline against terror and expansionism.
Similarly, the Obama administration justified its withdrawal from Iraq as part of a pivot to Asia burdening the neighbouring countries (Syria and Turkey). Likewise, Afghanistan too has become a human rights problem and considering the certainty that Taliban in Afghanistan helped inspire the deadly Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Even though the leaders of both the groups don't share common goals, there's still a possibility that the model of Afghanistan can inspire Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani) and might lead to destabilisation of Pakistan which’ll put India in a dilemma. Then, how can India play smart in such circumstances? It can hold a room for Intra-peace talk. However, this is unlikely to give India much leverage, given the Pakistani angle, furthermore the fact that all regional and donor countries have already done so. At the military level, it can strengthen defence mechanisms, upgrade to modern technology and participate in diplomatic border engagement. Additionally, keep a check on separatists & extremists leaders in sensitive areas at political level. Increased surveillance in urban areas by RAW and Intelligence Bureau to protect at societal level.
The most volatile option right now for India is to hang back, until the disarray of conflict reveals a winning side, and weigh its options accordingly. This option might be pragmatic, but it also denies India’s relevance at the “high table” where Afghanistan’s future is being discussed.