While the Trump Administration has, since it assumed office, focused its attention primarily on ISIS, there is no clarity as yet on how it intends to deal with Afghanistan, where over 8,000 US troops are deployed. In the meantime, a bitter conflict rages between the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and the Afghan Army. Russia and China seem to be focusing on pleasing Pakistan, by seeking political accommodation with the Taliban, which still operates with the backing of Pakistan. While India was initially excluded; but belatedly invited to this diplomatic effort, it finds its role circumscribed by China-Russia-Pakistan combination. New Delhi, however, remains firm, by backing the diplomatically-cornered Afghan Government.
While the Trump Administration has declined to participate in the talks brokered by Beijing and Moscow, it has remained silent in spelling out a clear policy on how it intends to proceed with the longest conflict ever, in which the US has been actively involved. While Trump has been critical of American interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, he has not offered any comment on the US role in Afghanistan. His military brass, particularly Defence Secretary General Mattis and the Commander of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, appear afflicted with the same beliefs that many American Commanders over the past two decades held and came to grief. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Mattis and Votel appear to believe that Pakistan’s Generals can be persuaded to fulfill commitments to stop aiding terrorist groups by sweet talk and encouragement.
Like their predecessors, both Mattis and Votel will get a reality check sooner, rather than later. How then will the mercurial President Trump handle developments in Afghanistan? Given his oft-stated rhetoric about “America First”, Trump could act as a saviour of American lives and seek a face-saving withdrawal from Afghanistan. Such a development would inevitably lead to Pakistan-backed Taliban control of extensive parts of Afghanistan, which then as in the past, would become “strategic depth” for anti-Indian Jihadis to operate from. Pakistan, which now has forces to deploy heavily on its borders with Afghanistan, can then focus its entire attention on “low intensity conflict” against India. The alternative for Trump is to turn the screws further on Pakistan, while stepping up pressures through drone strikes on Taliban safe havens. Moreover, will the Trump Administration pick up courage to tell Russia and China that their present love fest with the Taliban is a road to nowhere, both diplomatically and militarily?
In this complex diplomatic environment, India’s main strength is that it is on the same page as the Afghan
Government and a vast majority of Afghans who loathe the Taliban. Pakistan seeks to make Afghanistan a client State. China appears to believe that it can insulate its Muslim majority Xinjiang Province bordering Afghanistan from Islamic radicalism by getting a Government dependent on its “all-weather friend” Pakistan installed in Kabul. Iran, which had serious differences with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and joined India in backing the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, today has links with the Taliban. Teheran would prefer to see American forces leave Afghanistan. And nobody appears to know the mind of President Donald Trump, on the future American role in Afghanistan. India needs to undertake a closely coordinated diplomatic effort with the Afghan Government to see that their mutual concerns about the Pakistan/Taliban/Haqqani nexus are taken note of and addressed.
The writer is a former diplomat