The Taliban’s latest attack, on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, came as a New Year reminder that the situation in Afghanistan remains a potent threat to the peace and security of a region bristling with nuclear weapons, and continues to torment the US with the prospect of military and diplomatic failure despite its 17 years of boots on the ground, body bags and billions of dollars. The 14-hour attack, which left at least 22 people killed, came amid reports that the US would send upto 1,000 more troops to Afghanistan by March, including a newly created Security Force Assistance Brigade. With that, there will be 15,000 US troops in Afghanistan, almost double the number that existed when Donald Trump took over as president.
Contrary to what he stood for before the election, Trump has gone with the advice that US presence in Afghanistan needs to continue. The Trump Administration’s decision to cut off military funding to Pakistan because of its failure to keep its part of the bargain by eliminating safe havens for the Taliban and other terrorists on its territory has shocked the Pakistan military, and the government is still struggling to find a coherent response. Islamabad has condemned the Kabul hotel siege, and the US has demanded that Pakistan “immediately arrest or expel the Taliban’s leaders”, and “prevent the group from using Pakistani territory to support its operations”. But the Trump administration may well decide, as did previous administrations, that it would be better off in Afghanistan with Pakistan inside its tent than outside.
Indeed, the violence in Afghanistan has only increased in the six months since Trump announced his Afghan policy, in which he also slammed Pakistan for harbouring “agents of chaos and terror”. This was music to Indian ears, but what should worry New Delhi are the strident US efforts to outsource its engagement in Afghanistan to India. Aside from the adventurism that will be written into it, that might end up linking India’s difficulties with Pakistan in Afghan soil in ways that would feed into the Pakistan military’s self-serving theories of encirclement. It may be Trump’s way of putting pressure on Pakistan, or on China, which now considers itself a stakeholder in any Afghan outcome. But that does not mean it will serve Indian interests. In the long term, India and its global aspirations will be best served by peace in the region, and it is upto South Asia’s biggest power to take the lead in this, rather than joining the race to the bottom.