US troops to stay put in Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III walks with the commander of Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. E. John Deedrick Jr., upon arrival in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 21, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

American troops are unlikely to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 as envisaged in the “peace deal” signed by the Trump administration and Taliban leaders last year. 

Days after US President Joe Biden said it would be “tough” to meet the May 1 deadline, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to the war-torn country on Sunday to meet President Ashraf Ghani. 

In a statement on Sunday, the Afghan presidential palace said Austin and Ghani discussed the peace process and rising violence. 

Experts believe the meeting was also to iron out the differences between Washington and Kabul over the larger plan to divert American boots from Afghan soil. 

Ghani is wary of a complete US pullout without a proper plan for the post-withdrawal scenario. He is also vehemently opposed to Trump’s promise to give representation for Taliban in the interim government. Afghan minister of state for peace, Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi, put it more bluntly when he said in an interview that he hopes the US will leave Afghanistan “responsibly”.

The US has proposed an interim regime which it calls the ‘peace government’ to steer Afghanistan towards constitutional reforms and elections. Ghani is not in favour of any interim arrangement that will give Taliban power. Instead, he says elections alone will bring a change of government. 

In a message to Ghani earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is keeping “all options” on the table to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan. But a lot of vexing questions need to be answered first. Chief among them is who will fill the security vacuum when the US troops eventually withdraw. 

This brings India to the table. While New Delhi has been careful not to appear keen on jumping into the Afghan cauldron, a section of experts tracking the region believe India will be a good fit. For one, Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t think leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of Taliban elements is a good idea. Two, India has the military capability to maintain stability in the region while Modi has the will power to make challenging decisions.

While it may appear risky to intervene in Afghanistan, the downside of not doing anything would be scary. Without intervention, Afghanistan could again become a safe haven for jihadists, who will destabilise countries whom India depends for its energy needs. Taliban has deep, undetachable ties with Pakistan’s wily Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Some reports say the grouping also has links with anti-India jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, besides a splinter group of the al-Qaeda. 

It has been 20 years since the US troops landed in Afghanistan. At one point, the US troop presence was around 100,000, which has come down to 3,500. Pentagon data puts the number of US troops killed in action in Afghanistan so far at 2,300. 

According to estimates, the US currently spends roughly $4 billion per annum to keep its troops in Afghanistan. That’s one reason why Biden quickly clarified that while the May 1 deadline is likely to be extended, it won’t be by a “lot longer”.  

Austin made his unannounced visit to Kabul after his trip to India. Meanwhile, Afghan foreign minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar arrived in New Delhi on Monday for a three-day visit. 

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