US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for India

On December 28, the US-led NATO forces marked the end of their combat operations in Afghanistan. Only over 12000 foreign troops will stay back in this land-locked nation. They will not be involved in direct fighting with the Taliban, yet they will assist the Afghan army and police in the battle against the terrorist group, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001.

Departure of NATO troops has implications for India’s security

Given the situation when Afghanistan and Pakistan are deep in the mess created by terrorists, the withdrawal of the US-led forces from Afghanistan would have a bearing on India’s internal security apparatus, feel several experts. Many even fear return of the pre- 2001 situation or the country slipping into civil war after disintegrating on ethnic lines. This fear has further deepened in view of several reports suggesting ill-preparedness of Afghan National Forces (ANA) to fight the battle hardened Taliban insurgents. In 2014 alone, more than 5000 ANA soldiers and police have been killed fighting against insurgents. In comparison, international coalition forces fighting under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have suffered a total of 3,485 deaths since 2001. But then the year 2014 was not the bloodiest year for the ANA, but also for Afghanistan’s common civilian. If a recent UN report is to be believed, close to 10,000 people have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan. Amid such developments, departure of NATO troops has left India to fend for itself.

Pakistan-sponsored non-state actors may feel emboldened now

In fact, immediate worry for India is the impact of the Taliban presence in Afghanistan on the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where militancy broke out in 1989. Although tight security situation in the state has sharply brought down the level of violence in the past few years, there is fear that with the US-led NATO forces quitting Afghanistan and only skeleton forces left behind for non-combat purposes, the Afghanistan Taliban who enjoy good relations with Pakistan’s army, would be emboldened enough to target India and its interests. Secondly, Pakistan may find it easy to pull out troops guarding the country’s western front bordering Afghanistan and may move them towards the border with India. Once this happens, Pakistani troops would be able to strongly back militants sneaking into Kashmir under the cover of firing and shelling along the border. Experts worry that in the absence of strong international forces in the region, Pakistan with help from its non-state actors would go whole hog to affect peace and stability in other parts of the country also.

Despite this possible scenario, what is befuddling strategists is Delhi’s silence on the supply of armaments to the ANA. In 2013, officials from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office had zeroed in on Russia as an answer to their complex exercise to arm Afghani forces before the US and NATO troops’ withdraw from Afghanistan. It was agreed that Moscow would supply Kalashnikovs, artillery guns, armoured vehicles and choppers to Afghanistan. A range of non-lethal weapons would also be supplied. Before undertaking such decision, several pros and cons were evaluated. China’s response to the India-Russia deal was considered too. Good relations between Russia and China and latter’s commitment to drive out terrorists from Xinjiang province, the terrorist affected region which shares 76-km long border with Afghanistan, were also taken into account. Yet the newly elected government headed by the Narendra Modi has done nothing to push this piece of its Afghanistan strategy.

NATO withdrawal: A Strategic Challenge for India

In November, Afghanistan’s new regime led by President Ashraf Ghani had expressed unhappiness over India’s delay in supply of military hardware. However, those who are familiar with the Modi government’s South Asia strategy say India is in no way turning its back on Afghanistan, the country where Delhi has invested more than $2 billion for infrastructure and institution building. According to some diplomats, Delhi is in direct touch with Russia, China, Iran and Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan. These countries have a shared fear that once the Taliban get strengthened in Afghanistan, they would have to face the music.

Now that the US-led international troops have completed the drawdown process, the immediate consequence of this withdrawal that any country has to bear after Afghanistan would be India. In coming days it would have to face Pakistan as sponsor of non-state actors like Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba on its Western and Northern border and attack on its interests in Afghanistan and the Central Asian region from the Taliban and Haqqani group. How Delhi would cope with all this, would be a much watched affair both for strategists as well as foreign watchers.