Will India play a role in maintaining peace in Afghanistan?

The announcement by US President Joe Biden on US completely pulling out troops from Afghanistan has raised concerns with India about peace and democracy in the region.
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United States (US) President, Joe Biden, announced that the USA alongside North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO) will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by September 11. The removal of the last of the 3000 American troops will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 on New York and Washington were led by the Wahhabi terrorist group Al-Qaeda. Apart from the US troops, there are 10,000 NATO troops too.

In his announcement, Joe Biden asked India to do more for Kabul after the pullout. He said, "We'll ask other countries, other countries in the region, to do more to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India, and Turkey. They all have a significant stake in the stable future for Afghanistan".

In the televised address he further stated that “It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” Biden said in a televised address. “I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

US invasion of Afghanistan

On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives led by Osama Bin Laden hijacked four commercial airlines and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington D.C. Nearly 3000 people died in this attack, and almost 25,000 people were injured.

Taliban Islamic political and military force that governed Afghanistan, was guarding Osama Bin Laden. They refused to hand him over to the US. Former US President George W. Bush signed to use the law Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF). According to this law, the US could use force against the nations, organisations, and people behind the 9/11 attack. Now, for over two decades, the AUMF has been used as the legal rationale to invade Afghanistan and use force against Al-Qaeda.

In October, the American and the British forces joined hands and launched attacks on the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan calling it the war on terror. Slowly from November, the Taliban regime began unraveling after its loss at Mazar-e-Sharif. In a week, Taliban strongholds, Taloqan, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, and Jalalabad crumbled, and the US forces took over them.

Soon, the United Nations intervened to establish a transitional administration and invited members stated to send in peacekeeping forces to promote stability and aid delivery.

In December after inviting major Afghan factions to Germany and signing the Bonn Agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 1383, an interim government was installed with Hamid Karzai as the administrative head. The Taliban regime collapsed, and its leader Mullah Omar fled.

Nearly two years after the invasion, in May 2003, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to major combat. Rumsfeld said, “(President Bush, U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Tommy Franks, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai) have concluded that we are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction and activities.”

Soldier talks to children while on patrol in Afghanistan.
Soldier talks to children while on patrol in Afghanistan.Sgt Rupert Frere RLC

In 2003, NATO took control over the International Security Forces (ISAF).

The years following saw an increase in the violence and suicide bombings. Afghan civilians had to bear the brunt of the war between the US troops and the Taliban. The old battles were fought with new strategies by different governments.

A total of 2,312 US military personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001, that includes 2,218 service members who died in the original mission, known as Operation Enduring Freedom, and 94 members who died since the creation of the training mission, known as Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

There has been an increase in US troops in Afghanistan since 2009, leading to a surge in fatalities. 1,534 Americans have died between 2009 and 2012, and 20,066 American service members have been wounded in the war since 2001.

Apart from the US army personnel, the United Nations report issued in 2020 estimates almost 35,000 to 40,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan.

Last year, the United States and the Taliban had signed an agreement in February, which called for a complete withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by May 2021, if the Taliban met the conditions of the deal, which included severing ties with all terrorists groups. The deadline of May has now been extended to September 11.

Role of India in Afghanistan

With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan completely and limiting its presence to nominal 2,500 troops in Iraq, this will enable Washington in putting more focus and resources into the Indo-Pacific for dealing with threats from China. A threat assessment report from the US Intelligence agency has put China on top of global danger to the country's security.

Joe Biden has been strategically trying to bring India to the front in Indo-Pacific and increase its involvement in Afghanistan.

India and the Taliban have shared a turbulent history, but that might change as "India has a significant stake in the stable future for Afghanistan" said Biden.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014

Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, said that India is concerned about the vacuum that will be formed with the exit of the US from Afghanistan but the main concern is that this should not create space for other disruptors, and the history of violence should continue. "We would be very happy to provide whatever support we can in the development of Afghanistan and making sure peace returns to that nation. People have got tired and are looking at peace," General Rawat said while speaking in a virtual discussion at the Raisina Dialogue 2021.

When Rawat was asked whether Iran and Pakistan could exploit the situation, the Chief of Defence said that many other nations would like to step into Afghanistan for strategic reasons as it is a country with rich resources.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar raised his concerns with the withdrawal and said that it was necessary that Afghanistan’s constitution, democratic processes, and the rights accorded to women and minorities were ensured under any circumstances, and that the “endgame” in Afghanistan be “united, democratic and sovereign”. Further, he added that India is concerned about the withdrawal as it could bring back the Taliban in power in Kabul.

New Delhi, which signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Kabul, has given Afghanistan economic assistance of over $3 billion since 2001, and also provided security assistance through training over 4,000 Afghan military and security personnel and supplying helicopters. Although it does not match the economic assistance provided by the West, India is one of the most reliable development partners in the region.

India has built Afghanistan's parliament, a Taliban target for being a symbol of democracy, and is constructing a network of roads that would also provide a link for the landlocked country to a port it has constructed in Chabahar, Iran.

India has also been focusing on developing the infrastructure in Afghanistan, which includes projects like India Afghanistan Friendship Dam, also known as the Salma Dam.

India has a unique position, as it is one of the few countries that can engage with the United States and Europe on one hand and Iran and Russia on the other, thus contributing to the Afghan peace process.

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