Kabul remains vulnerable to Taliban terror attacks even as it is the focus of renewed diplomatic activity in the new year. January 2019 is the 18th such dawn since the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks of September 2001 and sustainable peace in Afghanistan alas, remains elusive .
The first attack of the year by the Taliban (January 15) killed four innocents in Kabul while more than a 100 were injured. Concurrently US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad held delegation level talks in Islamabad on January 17 and the need for an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Ashraf Ghani led government and the Taliban was reiterated.
Whether Pakistan is part of the problem in Afghanistan or the solution remains moot and within Islamabad there is some dissonance about India's role in the Afghan peace process. While one view acknowledges India as a stakeholder, the Pakistan Foreign office has lately asserted that "India has no role in Afghanistan".
This opaque and contested nature of the way ahead in war-torn Afghanistan was triggered by the Trump administration which threw the world and the USA into considerable turmoil in late December 2018. The White House announced a withdrawal of US troops from two operational theaters - Afghanistan and Syria.
Consequently, complex geopolitical flux and violence-laden turbulence is likely to be the leitmotif for this region in 2019, even as the enormity of the Trump announcements are internalized.
On December 19 US President Donald Trump surprised his closest advisers by ordering the full and rapid withdrawal of over 2,000 US troops from Syria. The Department of Defense in the Pentagon were clearly not in the Trump loop and, a day later, the widely respected US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis submitted his resignation.
Even as the implications of the Mattis exit were being analyzed, an official in the White House revealed that the Trump administration had also ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 US troops from the Afghanistan theatre, with what can be best described as minimum consultation among his principal security advisers. President Trump effected a major policy shift in US military commitment abroad and claimed that he had also fulfilled a campaign promise – to "bring the boys home" – this time for Xmas.
The consequence of these actions is that the USA - the world’s militarily most powerful nation - has a credibility gap as regards the civilian political stewardship of the vast Department of Defense. And, on another track, the US government is shutting down due to a fiscal management crisis over building a wall along the Mexican border.
The downsizing of the US military presence in Afghanistan is not totally unexpected but the timing is and it appears that the US led global war on terror (GWOT) that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in October 2001 is likely to wind down 17 years later, with no tangible political gain for Washington.
The adage that while the Americans may have watches (and the most modern military gadgetry), the Taliban have time on their side has come true. The US has expended close to USD 1 trillion and lost more than 2400 American lives, with thousands more wounded in its Afghanistan war, its longest war overseas. The Afghan security forces have lost upwards of 25,000 personnel and, in these 18 years, the civilian casualty scale is staggering and remains indeterminate.
The suicide bomber attack in Kabul in late December and now in January testify to the precarious internal security situation in Afghanistan. For the US and its NATO allies, the political objective of compelling the Taliban to lay down the gun and accept the Afghan constitution remains elusive and the Trump policy is a case of ‘enough-is-enough.’
India is a directly-affected party by the internal developments in Afghanistan. The ignominy of December 1999 and the hijacking of a civilian aircraft are a case in point. When the US embarked upon its GWOT in October 2001 and unseated the Taliban from Kabul, India was a direct beneficiary.
The reluctance on the part of the US administration to see through the duplicity of the Pakistani military that was hunting with the (US) hound and running with the (terrorist) hare appears to be under review by the Trump team but the policy options remain limited. The US would like to India to be an active stakeholder in Afghanistan but the Pakistani objections remain on the radar.
At the just concluded Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale asserted that India was now pursuing a policy of "issue-based alignment". How this will translate into effective policy in relation to Afghanistan will be the litmus test of India's claim to being a relevant power in the regional calculus. Delhi must ensure that 2019 does not become a replay of 1999.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)