The number 2020 represents clarity of vision, foresight and perspicacity, yet no one could predict how seminal the year 2020 would be; with countless lives lost, economies derailed, and countries redefined during a national security crisis. A country’s fragility can often be seen through an external lens in large Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of destroying cities. In this case, a tiny microbe unseen to the naked eye stalled and brought the world’s largest economy to a grinding halt, taking more lives than any missile has ever taken.
Both India and the United States continue to grapple with the COVID crisis as the Delta variant wreaks havoc worldwide. The pandemic has consumed five million lives around the world, and sadly India and the US have shared ownership of the highest number of cases globally, not a list either vibrant democracy wants to be part of.
Over the past few weeks, Washington and New Delhi have added yet another crisis to the agenda. COVID-19 in 2020 temporarily dislodged Climate Action as the most pressing global issue given the rapid urgency of the pandemic. Now, the escalating crisis in Afghanistan has become as urgent as tackling the pandemic, and both Washington and New Delhi are confronted with coordinating their respective responses to this catastrophic issue.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the US exit from Afghanistan is nearing completion. India and the US are evacuating their respective citizens and Afghans who have worked closely with military forces and the embassies. The death toll has mounted as Kabul recently witnessed a horrific bomb blast near its airport, targeting those trying to flee the country. The US stated that they retaliated in self-defense with an unmanned over-the-horizon (drone) airstrike on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating another threat from ISIS-K.
Both Washington and New Delhi have long been committed to regional security and stability in Afghanistan. While the US relationship with Afghanistan is largely seen through the lens of a prolonged war, trillions of dollars spent, and the cost of conflict, New Delhi and Kabul have a special relationship not defined by governments, but instead forged by close cultural and historic links that precede Indian independence.
While India has been committed to regional security, it has done so without any boots on the ground, largely due to a doctrine that is deep-rooted in strategic autonomy and aversion of involvement in external conflicts, haunted by the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces’ (IPKF) imbroglio in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s.
President Joe Biden may have stated that nation-building is no longer a priority for the US, but nation-building has been the hallmark of India’s involvement in Afghanistan by way of significant infrastructure investments totaling $3 billion (Rs 224 crore), including the construction of a new parliament building, later inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in Kabul 2015 and the Salma Dam in 2016. Since the first fall of the Taliban, India has significantly contributed to Afghan development by providing scholarships to students, enabling food assistance, electrification, building dams, roads, highways, schools, and hospitals.
Biden’s predecessors no doubt focused on security concerns in the Middle East and the long war in Afghanistan, but the current administration has concentrated on a domestic agenda that includes restarting an economy grappling with the ongoing pandemic, investing in infrastructure, vaccinating millions of Americans, and ending a 20-year-old war in Afghanistan which cost the lives of over 2,000 US soldiers and contributed $ 2 trillion worth of investments into the country.
While many in New Delhi understand that Washington’s decision to leave was fait-accompli and there was little room for influence in the matter, the strong strategic and military partnership between the two also brings with it looming security threats to each country.
India had cordial relationships with successive Afghan governments prior to the rise of the Taliban and continued relations with the Karzai and Ghani governments, as most of the leaders have strong connections with India and consider it a second home. Nonetheless, both New Delhi and Washington know the perils of a security vacuum in Afghanistan. As a close neighbor to Afghanistan, India has seen the pernicious hostility of nefarious elements being abetted by state and non-state actors to fuel insurgencies in India, gathering steam shortly after the Soviets left Afghanistan.
This is a new rendition to an old chapter. The US shifting focus away from Afghanistan saw a power vacuum, soon usurped by the Taliban in 1996. Lack of American foreign policy oversight preceding the “Af-Pak” strategy saw the Taliban in cahoots with Al-Qaeda, and then the horrors of 9/11, a sobering reminder as we approach the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks.
President Biden’s former boss, President Obama, had emphasized Washington’s pivot to Asia, further laying the groundwork for President Trump’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Strategy. With the shifting sands in Kabul, it’s important for Washington to know that while the Indo-Pacific serves as one bulwark to any belligerence from Beijing, the absence of a strong security partnership in Afghanistan sees Beijing and Moscow gain a stronger foothold in the country.
The pandemic has posed the biggest global security challenge taking nearly 5 million lives across the world. Now, the other concern for both democracies is that, while the Indo-Pacific helps preclude a Beijing foothold in the region, the absence of a strong democratic government in Afghanistan could see China emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia and strategic gains for Pakistan, Russia, and Iran as well.
The last time Washington looked away from Afghanistan, what transpired was a restive region that posed security threats to the neighborhood in India and transformed the global discourse on countering violent extremism post 9/11. Together, Washington and Delhi remained invested for two decades in helping rebuilding Afghanistan and skilling young Afghans, where the median age of the country remains just 18. A generation of Afghans grew up on hope with a democratic setup and have little experience of knowing what it’s like to live under the Taliban. The epitome of two democracies that helped build another fledgling democracy, but watching it fade away will pose grave concerns not just for Afghans, but also for India and the US in the long run.
—Mukesh Aghi, is the CEO & President of US- India Strategic Partnership Forum. The views expressed are personal.