Consequent to an agreement reached in February 2020 in Doha between the US and the Taliban to bring peace to Afghanistan, withdrawal of all US and NATO allies in Afghanistan within 14 months was agreed upon. The US had asked the Taliban for a firm commitment to not allow any Al-Qaeda activities on the soil of Afghanistan.

Upon signing the deal, Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar made this statement, "I hope that with the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan nation under an Islamic regime will take its relief and embark on a new prosperous life."

With nearly 2,400 US soldiers dead, over 20,000 wounded and over 40,000 civilians deaths in the 20-year conflict, the agreement, which also envisaged a significant reduction in troop numbers before the November 2020 US elections, seemed to provide quite good optics for the then President Donald Trump seeking another term in office. However, he lost the elections. The newly-elected President Joe Biden had the option to reshape the agreement but the Afghan crisis being a 'political hotpot', Mr. Biden thought it prudent to let the agreement go ahead hoping to take the steam out of the issue and prevent political opponents from getting any more mileage out of it.

In April this year, Mr. Biden announced his decision to complete the withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The US strategic minds perceived that current priorities lay elsewhere. China probably being the top of the list. No conditions were attached to the withdrawal as Mr. Biden felt that any attached conditions could prolong the conflict and consequently the withdrawal indefinitely.

THAT WAS A MISTAKE.

The message emboldened the Taliban. It was a crystal clear signal that come what may, the US and its allies would end the "occupation" soon. The announcement also demoralized the Afghan government and the Afghan military who had become accustomed to deriving strength solely from the US presence and support rather than focusing on strengthening its own structures. The Taliban had never abandoned control of rural areas - a BBC study had found in 2017 that the Taliban control or influence extended to areas that were home to half the population.

Following Mr. Biden's announcement in April, the Taliban moved fast. Rather than advancing to the cities, they set upon securing the border crossings first. By early May, they had secured major border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. This yielded a two-fold advantage to the Taliban: one, they started pocketing all the duties on trade with neighbouring countries and; two, all major land routes leading to the country were closed.

In the first week of July, the Taliban seized Afghan areas in the Wakhan corridor. The corridor contains the 74-km Afghan-China border besides areas adjoining Pakistan and Tajikistan. This occupation could later help extract recognition by China of the Taliban-backed government in Kabul in return for not supporting Uighur militants in China's Xinjiang region.

President Biden made another announcement on 8 July setting 31 August as the date for the end of the US military mission. The Taliban soon focused on takeover of major provincial capitals being defended by US-trained Afghan army. While the US had pinned great hopes on the Afghan army, the resistance they offered to the Taliban deserves no mention. Important factors that played part in their quick capitulation are poor leadership, lack of loyalty, religious and ethnic commonality, and covert military assistance to the Taliban by Pakistan.

Even the US was shocked in horror and shame. While it would have foreseen that the Taliban would be able to make significant gains over time once the US and the allied forces departed, it never estimated that this would come so soon. The wild melee at the Kabul airport symbolizes the serious failure of US foresight and planning. The US, after eliminating Osama and Mulla Umar, thought that it's primary tasks were over and was now unnecessarily shouldering the burden of supporting the Afghan army that had neither the will nor the motivation to fight the Taliban. More than $2 trillion was spent to train and equip the Afghan military that fell in a week! Right from the top downwards, there was nothing but absolute corruption and lack of professionalism where military contractors and corporations made giant profits.

There is one important coincidence here that draws some attention – the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban on 15 August, India's Independence Day. Though this may be a pure coincidence but if it is not, could there be anyone interested in delivering this outcome on that particular celebratory day, even if it entailed coercing/reinforcing the Taliban to forge ahead aggressively rather than cautiously while the US troops were still in the final stages of pulling out from Kabul? No prizes for the correct guess (es). If true, the intent would have been to send a subtle adversarial signal to us that celebrations are over. There is every likelihood that some hardcore Afghan terrorists may be pushed soon across LOC in J&K by Pak ISI and in other places to sabotage and create disturbances.

Now, coming to how the crisis impacts us. The Afghan people have always been our close friends. Not the Taliban who has always danced to the Pak army and ISI's tune. Once the Taliban's job in ending the "occupation" is realized, the jobless could be enrolled in ISI's ROJGAR YOJNA - to join ranks in terrorist activities in J&K. It will be quite difficult to lessen Pak ISI's grip over the Taliban but who knows what the Taliban is thinking? It may behave like a reformed bunch of people in order to earn international legitimacy. Wishful thinking !!

China's interest in Afghanistan is three-fold: one, besides being Afghanistan's largest foreign investor, China wants to expand its Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan. It also has interests in Afghanistan's mineral, oil and gas reserves; two, it has an understanding with the Taliban in containing the rise of Uighur militants. Lastly, minimizing India's influence in the region by cultivating Taliban as another cohort besides Pakistan.

Is our political leadership thinking and planning a step ahead? There were reports of "quiet meetings" in early June between Indian officials and the Taliban political leadership based in Doha. We now have a wait-and-watch period as the Taliban works out its governing structure. But our political leadership needs to be quite agile and astute. Our enduring bond of friendship with the Afghan nation can always help us stay ahead of our two adversaries.

On the flip side, the developments in Afghanistan could also result in a huge humanitarian and refugee crisis that may need our assistance as well. We can't and shouldn't abandon good old friends - but not at the cost of national security.

Dr. Mohan Bhandari

Lt. Gen. (Dr) Mohan Bhandari, also known as the Thinking General, was born in August 1946. A veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the general has spent a number of years combating counter-insurgency/terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir and various other parts of the country. He is the proud recipient of three Presidential awards presented for his exceptional services to the nation. He was the Indian Army's face for both print and electronic media. The general is a rare mix of a successful soldier, erudite scholar, a powerful orator, a prolific writer, and a gifted painter. At present, he is a visiting faculty member at the Academic Staff Colleges of the UGC, universities, and schools of instructions.

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