Updated: August 18, 2021 8:44:15 am
There could be many ways to bid goodbye, and United States President Joe Biden did not find the best words. His 18-minute speech defending the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by August 31, a decision that led to the collapse of a costly two-decade experiment with democracy and the Taliban taking back Kabul almost exactly 20 years after their ouster, will go down in history as a stark lesson in how a superpower does business with the world: It always acts from self-interest. This is well understood but Biden underlined it. His definition of the objective of the war in Afghanistan as not nation-building but for “preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland” contradicted years of US policy and involvement in Afghanistan, pouring of cash into holding elections and propping up chosen leaders in Kabul. But Biden’s speech was most egregious for the manner in which he dismissed Afghans as a people who do not have the will to fight their own war, but instead want American soldiers to fight it for them. Apparently, Afghan soldiers who were killed fighting alongside US and NATO troops count for nothing, and neither do the efforts of ordinary Afghan civilians who threw themselves into the same “nation-building” project that Biden dissed, and the risks they took in the hope that it would help to keep the Taliban out forever. There was no acknowledgment, even for form’s sake, of the uncertain future the Afghan people and the entire region now face. What he conveyed unequivocally, though, is that the US has closed this chapter in its history.
For India, this is a new challenge. On the back of the American presence in Afghanistan, India had built on its age-old ties with the country to win back the influence it had lost after the exit of Soviet troops and with the advent of the mujahideen, and eventually the Taliban. Delhi’s three-year-long confusion — to talk to the Taliban or not — was finally overtaken by the speed of events over the last few days. As of Tuesday, India has zero diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Re-establishing it will depend upon the kind of dispensation that takes shape in Kabul over the next few days, and on whether India decides to engage with it.
Pakistan, which has finally achieved the objectives of its Afghanistan policy with the Taliban victory, will want to clip India’s wings. India is now virtually friendless in the region, cut off by the China-Pakistan axis, and more or less by Russia too. Even South Block’s friends in the erstwhile anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have seen the writing on the wall, taking the first opportunity to visit Islamabad. What India wants to achieve by courting an increasingly pro-China Iran remains to be seen. Overall, India has a tough task ahead, re-balancing equations in the region and beyond, even as it shores up its security. In its severity, the situation recalls Delhi’s moment of reckoning with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This is no less a test of India’s foreign policy.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 18, 2021 under the title ‘Ungraceful retreat’.