Soon after the resignation of America’s defence secretary Jim Mattis in December, news broke from official American sources that the United States would withdraw 7,000 troops, out of the 14,000 deployed in Afghanistan, over the next few months. US President Donald Trump followed this up with a tweet that in fact it was Syria from where US troops would withdraw fully, claiming the Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated completely. Mr Mattis departed prematurely, after Mr Trump discovered belatedly that his resignation letter was in fact an indictment of Mr Trump’s entire geostrategic worldview. Mr Trump himself has blown hot and cold over the withdrawals, alternating between a delayed drawdown to possibly an indefinite status quo.
His vacillation aside, the Trumpian remarks made most regional powers scurry to protect their own interests, most by playing peacemaker between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In fact, the jockeying had begun with the appointment of ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US special envoy for Afghanistan and his proactive diplomatic outreach. Russia tried its hand at peacemaking by convening a conference in Moscow which Taliban representatives attended, and to which India sent two former diplomats. The fourth session of a regional conclave was due in Riyadh this month, when the Taliban anno-unced their unwillingness to attend, saying it should be held in Qatar, where the Taliban have their office. The last meeting in the United Arab Emirates in December, attended by the United States and Pakistan, besides the Taliban, was inconclusive as the Taliban refused to sit down with Afghan government representatives. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while hosting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, announced last week that both would hold a conclave with the Afghan government in March. Iran has had its first open parleys with the Taliban in December, claiming that the Afghan government was in the loop. Tehran’s national security adviser later flew to Kabul to brief the Afghans. According to the Taliban, they discussed post-occupation issues, the use of Chabahar, while the Iranians claimed they insisted on the Afghan government’s sovereignty remaining intact.
The independent Western assessment is that the Afghan government today controls about 65 per cent of the population and 55 per cent of the territory in the country. The Taliban claim that the number is 70 per cent for both. The former US defence secretary, Mr Mattis, and President Trump differed precisely over this — that troop withdrawals could not be talked about till the Taliban had been bled enough to bring them to the negotiating table. President Trump was made to accept this at the start of his term, which varied with his campaign pitch and perhaps his belief and was marketed as rectifying his predecessor Barack Obama’s mistaken announcement of deadlines for withdrawal as it emboldened the Taliban to wait out till the American exit. Clearly, the Taliban have now a strategy to play one power against the other to balance pressure on them from the Saudis, Emiratis and Pakistan. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed suddenly surfaced in Islamabad on a one-day working visit on January 6, bearing a $6 billion-plus aid-cum-financial package and the promise of fresh investment in a refinery. The Taliban have been cultivating Iran for years, and now by discussing Chabahar as an alternative access route to the Indian Ocean are degrading Pakistani leverage, besides sticking a finger in the US-Saudi-Emirati eye by ceding Iran influence on Iran’s east when the trio has been labouring to contain it on Iran’s west and in Yemen.
The government in Kabul has also been circling its wagons to prepare for US abandonment as it enters a crucial year, with a presidential election in April. The home and defence ministers have been replaced by known Pakistan-Taliban baiters. In this context came the snide and inaccurate remarks by President Trump that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told him that India had built a mere “library” for Afghans. Whether this can be attributed to miscommunication or simply Trump-think, the truth is vastly different. India’s assistance tops $3 billion and India has lost lives and earned much goodwill by its projects, ranging from hydropower stations to hospitals and vital roads and even the Afghan Parliament. Two visitors, close on the heels of each other, broaden India’s options, provided the Modi government has overcome its bashfulness in upsetting Mr Trump.
Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib was in India on January 3-6 for parleys with India’s NSA Ajit Doval. Mr Mohib was measured but direct during his press interaction, saying that Afghanistan values its “strategic partnership with India” and sees “eye to eye with India” on terrorism. Reflecting the 2011 agreement which raised bilateral relations to a strategic level, he said his current visit was not about a wishlist but to discuss strategic issues. He naturally ducked commenting on Mr Trump’s swipe at Mr Modi, but conceded that defence training and even equipment had been provided by India in the past and more was in the pipeline. This answers Mr Trump’s charge of India’s supposed reluctance to take on a bigger security role. In fact, the US has in the past blocked an excessive Indian role in the security field due to Pakistani objections. India should not put its boots on the ground in Afghanistan, which only earns the hostility of locals, but can and probably would hike the three legs of security cooperation — funding, equipment and training.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javed Zarif visits India on January 7-9 for bilateral talks and to speak at the Raisina Dialogue. India has had to play a balancing game between Iran and the US-Saudi-Emirati trio as President Trump has thrown his weight behind the other two, leading a Sunni alliance, wrongly dubbed an “Arab Nato” as it excludes Arab Shia powers like Iraq and Syria, as indeed Sunni Qatar and even Kuwait and Oman. With the Narendra Modi government distracted by domestic issues, the coming Lok Sabha elections and rattled by the BJP’s defeat in three state Assembly elections, it will perhaps play the Afghan game conservatively, more to avoid misadventures than to scale-up an Indian role to shape outcomes. The main challenge that remains will be to keep riding multiple horses without falling off.