US President Barack Obama’s plans for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan pit his domestic political compulsions against the situation on the ground. US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011. In the face of public fatigue with America’s longest war, Afghanistan’s turn was to come in 2014. On Tuesday, Obama laid out plans indicating he has deferred to his generals’ opinion that a substantial force be left behind. Currently, there are 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan. At the end of this year, 9,800 will stay behind for “two narrow missions” — training the Afghan forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations. That depends on Kabul signing the joint security pact — and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to do so. But Obama’s confidence stems from the pledge made by both presidential run-off candidates to sign it.
Afghan forces have taken the lead, but their ability to ensure security — as Nato support declines and Pakistan continues to harbour the Taliban — is in doubt. The criticism of Obama’s plan points not to the numbers but the timeline — all troops, barring those needed to guard the US embassy, will be gone by end-2016. It is seen as arbitrary by some and as timed to coincide with the president’s demitting office by others. Moreover, the fact that an almost normalised Iraq descended into fresh violence and instability is argument against such a rigid deadline. A similar fate for Afghanistan could destabilise the subcontinent and jeopardise Indian interests. On Monday, India’s consulate in Herat came under attack.
The NDA government has the opportunity to be bolder than the UPA on military cooperation with Kabul. India cannot match US assistance to Afghanistan. But it can help Kabul build its air force, after recently deciding to finance Moscow’s arms supplies. New Delhi must deepen its collaboration with Afghanistan’s neighbours — from Iran to Central Asian states — while working closely with others to secure its long-term objectives in Afghanistan.