US South Asia Policy: The Fallout From Afghanistan

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US South Asia Policy: The Fallout From Afghanistan

Insights from Michael Kugelman.

US South Asia Policy: The Fallout From Afghanistan
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, is the 286th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Analyze the Biden administration’s rationalization of the chaos that accompanied the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The administration has argued that no matter when the withdrawal was completed, there would have inevitably been messiness on the ground given the complexities of coordinating large numbers of evacuations in a volatile environment.

This is true, to an extent. But there were still two major mistakes made by the administration. First, after it announced its withdrawal, it did not come up in advance with a contingency plan to implement in the event of the worst-case scenario: a Taliban takeover prior to the completion of the withdrawal. To be sure, few expected this scenario to come to pass. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been anticipated. If such a plan was in place in advance, the administration could have implemented it and presumably avoided some of the recent chaos.

Second, the administration should have done more earlier on to address bottlenecks – caused by bureaucracy and COVID-19 – that delayed the processing of special visas for Afghans that worked with the U.S. military. Had these bottlenecks been eliminated earlier on, more vulnerable people could have gotten out more quickly.

Explain the strategic calculus of Pakistan and India in managing the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Islamabad and New Delhi will approach the Taliban from very different positions. Pakistan has a long relationship with the Taliban. It helped establish the group and sponsored it for years, including being one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban regime in the 1990s. By contrast, India only reached out to the Taliban for the first time, on a formal level, weeks ago. It has rightfully viewed the Taliban as a Pakistani asset that is anti-India in its outlook.

Pakistan will likely seek some security assurances from the Taliban, especially in terms of its willingness to deny space to the Pakistani Taliban, an anti-Taliban outfit with its leadership based in Afghanistan. But Islamabad is unlikely to demand much of the Taliban as a condition for recognizing the Taliban regime.

New Delhi, however, will be very cautious. It will likely watch Taliban behavior in the coming months and see what approach it takes to terror groups in Afghanistan, and what type of relationship it has with Pakistan. I doubt India will recognize the Taliban government, but I do think it will want to establish enough informal links with it so that it can be in a better position to convey its interests — which mainly entail ensuring that India’s equities and investments in Afghanistan are not imperiled.

Still, no matter how you slice it, a Taliban-led Afghanistan delivers a strategic blow to India. A pro-Pakistan government will be in power in Afghanistan, and Pakistan along with India’s other top rival, China, will be poised to step up their game, assuming they get security and counterterrorism assurances. India had close ties to all non-Taliban governments in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. But now it’s likely to have no formal relationship with Kabul at all.

How does the fallout from Afghanistan impact China-Pakistan relations?

On one level, the Taliban takeover generates opportunities for Islamabad and Beijing. If the two countries are sufficiently reassured about the security situation, China would be poised to bring infrastructure investments into Afghanistan, including those associated with its Belt and Road Initiative. This would benefit its close ally Islamabad, which hopes to expand its cooperation with China on infrastructure projects beyond Pakistan. I can envision Pakistan and China, with additional cooperation from Russia, using Afghanistan as a springboard for infrastructure projects that expand into Central Asia.

But the new reality in Afghanistan could also produce a rare tension point in China-Pakistan relations. In recent years, and especially in recent months, terrorists have staged attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, despite Chinese pressure on Pakistan to improve security. The galvanizing effect of the Taliban takeover, as well as the unlikelihood that the Taliban will crack down heavily on terrorism on Afghan soil  ̶  with the exception of Islamic State, a rival  ̶  means that we could see a rise in these attacks on Chinese targets in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban, which enjoyed a resurgence in recent months, and whose leadership is based in Afghanistan, have claimed several such attacks in recent months. The more these attacks keep happening, the more chances there are for some strain to emerge in China-Pakistan relations.

How might Iran and Russia benefit from U.S. absence in Afghanistan?

Iran and Russia, along with another top U.S. rival, China, are both advantaged and disadvantaged by the U.S. withdrawal. Certainly, the U.S. departure does provide a strategic opportunity, because it entails the removal of the U.S. footprint in their neighborhood.

At the same time, these countries quietly regarded the U.S. military presence as a benefit because it served as a net security provider that the countries themselves weren’t willing to provide. U.S. boots on the ground weren’t a major stabilizing force in Afghanistan – the Taliban took large amounts of territory and IS emerged there over the last few years – but they did enable the U.S. to carry out counterterrorism activities against actors, mainly IS, that Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran all view as threats. With the U.S. gone, the terror threats to these countries could intensify.

Assess U.S. South Asia policy in the aftermath of Afghanistan’s fall to Taliban control.

U.S. South Asia policy will largely revolve around continuing to build up ties with India in service of a common goal of counterbalancing China. This is a major reason why President Biden decided to leave Afghanistan – to free up more policy space to focus on strategic competition with China. Additionally, the U.S. will look to scale up ties with smaller South Asian states caught up in India-China rivalry, such as Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, in an effort to draw them away from China and more toward India and the United States. Washington will use tools associated with its Indo-Pacific strategy – especially the Blue Dot Network and Development Finance Corporation – to finance new infrastructure projects. But let’s be clear: Such efforts can’t hold a candle to China, which has a much deeper footprint in the region.

Pakistan, China’s top ally, will be left on the outside looking in on this countering-China U.S. policy. However, the Biden administration, following the deadly IS attack on U.S. troops at the Kabul airport, will find it very difficult to undertake a complete policy break with Afghanistan. It will ramp up its “over the horizon” counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan and try to develop a stronger capacity to monitor and strike terrorist targets without boots on the ground. This means neighboring Pakistan will remain important in U.S. strategic calculations. Islamabad and Washington could build up cooperation over the shared threat of IS – or they could succumb to the longstanding tensions and mistrust that often exist between the two when it comes to counterterrorism activities.