The political and commercial contestation over the geographical construct reveals the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific itself.
By Rashi Randev
President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, after two decades of military presence in the region was met with uncertainty and questions about the fate of Afghanistan as the country is incapacitated with Covid-19 pandemic and the continued presence of Taliban and an American military pull out in the region at this juncture will lead to closing of all the gains the country made in the last 15 years.
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President Joe Biden in his address on Thursday made it clear that the future of Afghanistan and the concerns about the rights of women and girls were not in the hands of American military but the responsibility of the current government. In his opinion Afghanistan’s nation building was not America’s intention and it was “the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” He pointed that America in the spirit of democracy has adequately empowered the Afghan police and military and the implications of the pandemic, dealing with eighteen months of economic disruption and continued racial unrest in the United States are a priority for his administration.
Shifting of American Priorities: From Middle East to Indo Pacific
The Biden administration is trying to shift its priorities away from the Middle East, which has consumed the United States’ attention and resources for two decades. President Biden considers China to be the United States’ greatest competitor and therefore the core determination of his administration is to contain China and incapacitate its endeavour to expand its capabilities and interests beyond its maritime borders.
Over the years China has exponentially increased its naval capabilities and last year China surpassed the United States by becoming the largest navy in the world. The United States needs to have an aggressive naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and this can be done when it decreases its presence in the Middle East and increases its focus on the number of deployments in the Indo-Pacific region. Shifting the US defence budget resources from the Army and directing it towards developing new advanced capabilities can build and strengthen the capacity of the navy and air force, as these two branches are far more relevant and necessary for countering Chinese aggression and balancing the power game in the Indo Pacific region. For the United States, the Indo-Pacific construct advocates for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the progression of Quad is essential for ensuring maritime security, safeguarding freedom of navigation and territorial connectivity in the region. OUAD’s first summit which took place virtually in March and was presided by leaders of the Quad nations- President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga was an affirmative statement and assurance of a rule based maritime order, exhibiting its commitment to make perceptible contribution in maintaining stability, peace and prosperity of the region.
The political and commercial contestation over the geographical construct reveals the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific itself. The region includes 60 percent of the world’s population, and the world’s second (China) and third (Japan) largest economies are from this region. Seven of the ten largest standing armies in the world are present in Indo-Pacific, including five countries that spend the maximum on its defence budget. The South China Sea alone accounts for one third of the global shipping which passes through it and the Indo-Pacific region steers more than two-thirds of the global growth. Therefore in these times where the American global hegemony can be challenged by other nations or a mere grouping of powerful countries, the United States’ substantial hold in the Indo-Pacific region is significant for its future.
Implications for India
India has strategic interests in Afghanistan’s future and as its ally, India can have an edge over Pakistan. Over the years India has tried to build its camaraderie with Afghanistan through investing in infrastructure, education sector, irrigation development and power generation projects. Indian engineers are helping to construct the Shahtoot dam near Kabul and Afghanistan was among the first countries to receive anti Covid-19 vaccination from India. But despite this association, India’s strategic, economic and security related interests depend on how the current Afghan government keeps the Taliban at bay after the Biden administration pulls its military presence from the region.
The idea of Trump’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was conditional on Taliban taking measures to avert and prevent al-Qaeda or any other militant group from harbouring in Afghanistan, and an assurance for agreeing to a dialogue on power sharing with the Afghan government, but the Biden administration has no such provisos. There are more than 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan at present, plus a NATO force of under 8,000 and Biden is committed for a complete pull out because even after an endeavour of two decades of trying to establish stability in the region through democratic governance, the Taliban remains to be a potent force in Afghanistan and according to the Council of Foreign Relations it has become even stronger than it was in 2001, when United States’ forces had invaded Afghanistan.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan will only bring challenges for the Indian Subcontinent as the US military presence kept a check on the radically extremist forces and created the possibility of a conducive environment for India to work with Afghanistan. The withdrawal can lead to a surge in international and regional terrorism, re-emergence of Taliban’s influence on Pakistan and the political instability it will create in the region. According to research conducted by Foundation of Defence of Democracies’ Long War Journal, out of 325 districts in Afghanistan, the Taliban exercise control over 76 districts and the Afghan government has control over 127 districts, while remaining 122 districts remain contested and after the pull out these districts can come under Taliban influence. India’s larger concerns are about the resurgence of Taliban, which can undoubtedly reassure and incite the extremist elements in Kashmir and other parts of India through India-focused militant groups such as Laskhar- e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are believed to have relocated to Afghanistan in large numbers. Unlike the United States, both India and Pakistan share a geographical proximity to Afghanistan, therefore any political instability in the region will affect both the countries. Pakistan has been supportive of Taliban in the past and with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan can again scale up its support to Taliban
India is wary of the future of the Afghan government without the support of the US military as it will trigger a geopolitical flux in the region and if peace talks do not fall through and there is a reneging of the terms of the Doha Accord by the Taliban then this consequence directly threatens India’s political, security, and economic interests in Afghanistan. Therefore to safeguard its own interests, India needs to reorient its policies towards Afghanistan and deal with the changing dynamics of power shift in the region.
(The author is PhD Scholar at the Centre of Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)