Redefining India’s Role In Afghanistan

Institute Of South Asian Studies (NUS)

November 23, 2021

The return of the Taliban had been in the making for a decade. Convinced that it has come to power through military means, the Taliban does not feel the need to form an inclusive government. Unlike other neighbouring countries, India had been hesitant in exploring engagement with the Taliban and ended up withdrawing from the country. However, it has legitimate interest in the stability of Afghanistan and enjoys goodwill among all communities.


The Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, at the level of National Security Advisers (NSAs) was hosted by Delhi on 10 September. An Iranian initiative, the first two meetings of this forum were held in Tehran in 2018 and 2019. NSAs from Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan responded positively to Indian NSA Ajit Doval’s invitation. There were two significant no-shows. Pakistani NSA Moeed Yusuf had publicly rejected the invitation, stating that “a spoiler (India) can’t be a peacemaker” while the Chinese authorities cited “scheduling difficulties”. Given the state of relations with Pakistan, the rejection was expected. Chinese absence suggests that China’s Afghanistan policy will continue to be guided and shaped by Pakistan. No one from Afghanistan was invited.

The Delhi Declaration[1] issued at the conclusion of the NSAs meeting was along predictable lines. It “condemned” the recent terrorist attacks in Kunduz, Kandahar and Kabul and reaffirmed a shared commitment to ensuring that “Afghanistan would never become a safe haven for global terrorism”. It stressed the need for “an open and truly inclusive government” and ensuring the “rights of women, children and minority communities”. While emphasising a central role for the United Nations and underlining the need for urgent humanitarian assistance, it reiterated that this be distributed across the country “in a non-discriminatory manner” through “unimpeded, direct and assured access”. The Declaration sought collective cooperation in tackling extremism and drug trafficking in the region.

This paper suggests that the basic message of the meeting was that though India no longer has a presence on the ground (India had withdrawn its personnel and shut down its embassy on 17 August, two days after the fall of Kabul), it has legitimate political and strategic interests, something the Central Asians, Iran and Russia acknowledged. The United States (US) Special Representative Thomas West also visited Delhi for ongoing bilateral exchanges on Afghanistan on 16 November 2021. Regular dialogue on Afghanistan continues with leading European nations and the European Union.

India’s Role Post-2001

Following the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, India returned to reopen its embassy. Indian presence had been scaled down in the early 1990s as Afghanistan gradually became a war zone due to the infighting between the Mujahideen groups. In 1996, the embassy was closed as the Taliban approached Kabul. Together with Iran and Russia, India supported the Northern Alliance, a resistance front against the Taliban led by the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud, operating from the Panjshir valley.

The hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC814 enroute to Delhi from Kathmandu in December 1999 that ended up in Kandahar led to protracted negotiations with the Taliban, hardening anti-Taliban perceptions in India. The 1990s had also witnessed ratcheting up of cross-border infiltration of trained militants into Kashmir.

In a post-Taliban Afghanistan, India found a welcoming environment with Northern Alliance leaders now holding key positions Though not a traditional donor, India became Afghanistan’s biggest regional development partner. During the last two decades, India committed nearly $3 billion (S$4.08 billion) towards humanitarian assistance, infrastructure development and rebuilding governance capacity with special focus on human resource development. A million tons of wheat, rebuilding hospitals, running half a dozen medical camps across the country providing prosthetics and undertaking minor surgeries were the major humanitarian projects. Power transmission lines enabling electricity import from Uzbekistan, road connectivity, a multipurpose hydel project, a machine tool workshop, TV uplink and downlink systems, a new Parliament building and cold storage units for local agricultural produce, were among the infrastructure projects.

Over a thousand Afghan students received scholarships every year for college and university education and nearly an equal number attended short term professional courses (like information technology, management and accounting) and basic skilling courses (refrigeration, electrical repairs, plumbing, carpentry etc). The United Nations Development Programme partnered with India for training Afghan civil servants. More than 60000 Afghans returned to help rebuild their country after completing their education in India. To strengthen local governance, India funded over 400 small development projects that were both proposed and implemented by local NGOs and district level officials. Special projects for skilling and reviving women’s enterprises were undertaken[2].

As a landlocked country, Afghanistan was dependent on Pakistan as Karachi was the only port it could access. India undertook a project to develop an alternative access route by developing Chabahar port in Iran and also built a 200-km highway in Afghanistan to help connect it to the Iranian border town of Zahidan. This was part of reviving Afghanistan’s traditional role as the crossroads between South and Central Asia and West and South Asia. Chabahar became part of this regional connectivity. India also spearheaded Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC.

In 2011, India became the first country with which Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement though Indian involvement in the security sector was minimal, largely due to US and NATO sensitivities as they were dependent on communication and supply lines through Pakistan. Gradually, as the Afghan army expanded, it began to make increasing use of Indian defence training establishments. In recent years, India has also supplied the Afghan forces with three helicopters. 

India’s development role was acknowledged by the Afghans and the international community. There was one exception – Pakistan – that tried hard to limit India’s role and presence. As Taliban insurgency grew, India was often targeted. Indians working on road projects were kidnapped and killed, guest houses where Indians stayed were often targeted and in 2008, there was a suicide attack on the Embassy in Kabul. Four Indians, including the Defence Attache and a senior diplomat were killed; the bombing also claimed over fifty Afghan lives. Intelligence pointed the finger at the Haqqani group that was later described by Admiral Mike Mullen in a briefing to the US Senate Armed Services Committee as “a veritable arm of the ISI”[3].

Return of the Taliban

Nobody could have predicted in 2001 that the US would be in Afghanistan for two decades or that its exit would be so ignominious. The searing image of Afghans falling off the C-17 Globemaster as it took off from Kabul will remain as abiding as those of the exit from Saigon in 1975. The tragedy is greater because the US went into Afghanistan with the support of the international community and its presence in Afghanistan was initially welcomed by all Afghans, except the Taliban. How did it go so wrong?

In December 2001, the Taliban sent an emissary to suggest a surrender to Hamid Karzai who was being tipped to head the transition in return for being allowed to stay in peace in Afghanistan but the US rejected it outright, assuming the Taliban had been eliminated. Even as the US got embroiled in Iraq, Taliban were regrouping in safe havens in Pakistan, reconstituting their cadres and re-establishing their financing links with Islamic charities. By 2006, the insurgency was back with increasing number of suicide attacks and IEDs, undermining the government and exploiting growing local disaffection.

The US kept insisting that it was not into nation-building but it pushed a new constitution, conducted elections, set up new judiciary, new army and police, in short, a completely new governance structure. The new constitution adopted the US model and centralised power in the presidency but the system lacked the checks and balances of a Congress, a judicial system, media and civil society structures. Corruption began to grow and governance suffered. There was lack of coordination among the donors as Germany took charge of the police sector, Italy of the judiciary and UK was given the counter-narcotics dossier. One example will suffice – after having spent tens of billions, Afghanistan today produces over 80% of the world’s illicit opium. The reason was that projects were funded based on reports by highly paid foreign experts who were totally divorced from Afghan ground reality.

Barack Obama came to power as US president, distinguishing Iraq as the “bad war” while Afghanistan was the “necessary war”. He announced a military surge to bring the insurgency under control but also announced that drawdown would begin 18 months later, leading to the Taliban joke, “You have the watches; we have the time.” The generals knew that it is impossible to defeat an insurgency that enjoys safe havens and sanctuary but it was an inconvenient truth. During the 1980s, the Mujahideen wore out the Soviets because the Soviets could not take the fight where the supply lines and the training camps were; the US forgot the lesson but the Taliban and the ISI did not.

The time was ripe to change the narrative. From a terrorist, the Taliban was first rebranded as an insurgent and now emerged as a political group. The opening of the Doha office in 2013 was the formal beginning of the legitimisation process. Various peace processes began, in Doha, Istanbul, Moscow and Islamabad. The final breakthrough came when US opened direct talks with the Taliban in 2018 and eventually capitulated to sign the 2020 Doha Agreement by committing to a withdrawal deadline in return for vague assurances about the Taliban cutting ties with Al Qaeda and other groups and engaging in a peace process with other Afghan sections. By committing the Kabul government to release over 5000 Taliban fighters held in custody, the US fatally undermined it. Even as US forces withdrew, the Taliban continued with their military advances occupying key districts and border check posts; the intra-Afghan talks remained at an impasse, unable to agree on an agenda.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s flight from Kabul while the US was undertaking its evacuation process only ensured the peaceful fall of Kabul. It ended US’ longest war but for the Afghans, a new chapter of uncertainty and violence was just opening. The Taliban’s backers showed greater staying power while the supporters of the Kabul regime lost patience and quit.

Two days after the Taliban entered Kabul, India closed its Embassy and evacuated its personnel, leaving open the field to the Taliban, Haqqani network and the ISI.

A Regional Reset

While presenting the Doha agreement as a peace deal, an impression was generated that Taliban had changed into a moderate political entity. However, there has been little evidence. Their first decision was to replace the Islamic Republic with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and bring back the old flag. There are some differences though. The Taliban of the 1990s was a politically unknown, militarily untested entity with a single leader, Mullah Omar. Today’s Taliban is politically known, with a decade of experience on the conference circuit in many capitals and a proven militarily entity, having waged a successful insurgency against the US. It is not as united though. The Amir ul Momineen Mullah Haibatullah has appeared only once at a madrassah in Kandahar on 30 October 2021 but no images or videos were permitted.

The Doha group that had been the public face led by founding member Mullah Barader appears to have been sidelined with Mullah Barader appointed as one of the two deputy prime ministers. News appeared about a showdown between him and the Haqqanis who have got the all-powerful Interior Ministry and intelligence as well as de-facto control of the eastern region of Afghanistan. Some of the old hard-line clerics have emerged as ministers but many of the military commanders who did the actual fighting are still waiting for the fruits of office to be able to keep control of their militias who are getting restive. There are reports that some of the more ideologically driven cadres are drifting towards the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).

In addition, there are other groups too – Al Qaeda, IS -Khorasan, Uighurs (ETIM), Uzbeks (IMU), Tajiks (Khatiba Imam al Bukhari) and Pakistani groups like the TTP, LeT, JeM, Jamaat ul Ahraar, Lashkar-e-Islam and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Clashes have been reported between the IS-K and Taliban as the former mounted bomb attacks against Shias in Kunduz, Kandahar and Kabul. The Taliban may have promised Pakistan, China and Russia that they will prevent any attacks from Afghan soil but the foreign militants have set their sights outwards and are unlikely to choose peaceful retirement. In terms of ideology, all the groups share the Salafi-Jihadi ideology. Iran is watching carefully to see for any signs of persecution of the Shias as happened during the 1990s.

Taliban ideology may not have changed, Afghanistan certainly has during twenty years. Its population has gone up from 21 million in 2001 to 38 million; it is a young population with a median age of eighteen and a half years. More than two-thirds of the population is below 30 and has grown up in a conservative albeit open society with TV, mobile phones and a patchy internet. With growing urbanisation, number of people living in urban areas has gone up from 4.6 million to 9 million. Kabul has seen the biggest increase, from a city of about 700000 through the 1990s, it is today home to over 3 million Afghans straining the creaking urban infrastructure. All this poses governance challenges of a different order compared to the 1990s. There is no revenue stream to pay salaries. Reserves abroad have been frozen and pledges to provide humanitarian assistance have yet to materialise. With winter approaching, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours are concerned about an impending refugee influx.

For the last five years, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been vocal in calling the US to leave describing its continued presence as the cause for violence and instability. With the US now out, the region is left with a highly unstable Afghanistan that is fast approaching a failed state.

Pakistan’s triumphalism was evident when the ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed made a highly visible visit to Kabul to resolve differences over power sharing among the different factions that enabled the announcement of the first cabinet list. The Haqqanis are now brokering a peace deal between Pakistan and the TTP with the latter demanding that they be allowed to govern their region in accordance with their version of the Shariah, something Pakistan finds difficult to accept.

As the old saying goes – be careful what you wish for, it may come back to bite you.


The Taliban are discovering that running an insurgency is easier than governing. They face multiple challenges – factionalism and disgruntled cadres, lack of resources and governance experience, tackling a hostile IS-K, a looming humanitarian crisis, potential pockets of resistance and an increasingly wary neighbourhood. They welcomed the Delhi Declaration though they were not invited and have repeatedly suggested that they would welcome the reopening of the Embassy by India. However, the Indian government is unwilling to take any chances given the influence of the Haqqanis, and by extension, the ISI. Nevertheless, unlike the West, India is part of the region and cannot disengage. It has responded to the humanitarian call by offering 50000 MT of wheat and urgent medical supplies. Pakistan has stated it would allow for overland transit as soon as modalities are finalised. Diplomatic engagement is likely to remain through Doha or at forums where Pakistan cannot veto Indian presence.


[1] Delhi Declaration on Afghanistan, Ministry of External Affairs, 10 November, 2021,

[2]India and Afghanistan: A Development Partnership, Publication by Ministry of External Affairs, 2009  and India-Afghanistan: A Historic and Time Tested Friendship, 2019

[3]Elisabeth Bumiller and Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Spy Agency Is Tied to Attack on U.S. Embassy, The New York Times, September 22, 2011

Distant Dreams Of Peace After The US Exit: What’s Next For Afghanistan?

SUMMARY: It would be easy to draw the wrong conclusions from the ugly spectacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent celebration by the Taliban of their return to power. The history of Afghanistan before and during the US involvement is a complicated affair, as no doubt will be the future. Former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood takes a look at the issues and what is at stake.

Historians like dates because these serve as convenient bookends to define beginnings and endings. Sometimes, there is a definitive date like Sept. 11, 2001 that gripped the world as it watched, stunned at the sight of airplanes flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Clearly, a new age had begun. Four days later, US President George W. Bush described 9/11 as “an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world” and announced “a war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.” A “global war on terror” was under way and military operations began on Oct. 7, 2001, under the name Operation Enduring Freedom.

But sometimes, historians look for a date to mark a closure, and Aug. 31, 2021, with the last US flight taking off from Kabul carrying Ambassador Ross Wilson and Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, is a suitable candidate. Ironically, the same Taliban that the US ousted in 2001 were now back. The US took credit for having carried out the largest airlift evacuation in history, but the Taliban celebrated their victory, together with other jihadi groups.

In search of a ‘grand strategy’

Major Powers like to adopt “grand strategies” because they have unlimited aspirations, and in the past, these often related to wars. The reason was because all-out wars demanded collective all-out efforts with a sole objective – victory. After the Second World War, the victorious European Allied powers were left with shattered economies and the Axis powers were destroyed, leaving the United States as the only major power with its economy intact and accounting for nearly half of global GDP.

Soon after the war’s end, the US found itself leading another war, one without open combat. The Cold War aimed at defending the Western free world against Soviet Communist expansionism; the grand strategy adopted was “containment.” It was a wonderfully undefined term and George F. Kennan, the diplomat and father of containment, wrote many articles later elaborating how his idea had been distorted. Successive US presidents – Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan – each coined their own doctrines while claiming to pursue containment.

Containment helped spawn the science and technology revolution in the US, build a national highway system and put a man on the moon. It also helped nurture stable democracies in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, justified the Vietnam debacle and the opening to China that has created a strategic rival, Containment drove the McCarthy era anti-communist witch hunt in the US and permitted cozy relations with right-wing military dictators in many cases. Containment lasted for nearly five decades because the Cold War did not envisage victory as a war based on combat does. The fact that the USSR imploded in 1991 without a shot being fired testified to its success.

As the sole superpower, the US was now searching for a new grand strategy. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had famously described America as “the indispensable nation.” Explaining why the US used military power, she said, “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

With 9/11, the new grand strategy was clear – a global war on terror. In an address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, President Bush held Al Qaeda responsible, declared war on the Taliban and called on every nation in the region to make a decision – “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

Re-evaluating the ‘global war on terror’

US Gen. Wesley Clark, in his book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire (2004), recalls how in November 2001 the US was already updating its invasion plans for Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz saw Iraq not as a direct threat but as part of a grand strategy to exhibit overwhelming military power, to destroy America’s enemies and secure US hegemony into the foreseeable future.[1] Henry Kissinger, the doyen of the US strategic community credited with the US opening to China that he has continued to justify, claimed in 2003, “Iraq is justified because Afghanistan isn’t enough. America’s enemies had aspired to its humiliation and we need to humiliate them.”

The problem is that a “global war on terror” involves combat but does not lend itself to simple outcomes of victory or defeat. A longstanding US ally, Israel, which has battled terrorism for decades could have explained this, but then Israel is not a global superpower. Secondly, Israel would hardly be averse to the idea that some of its adversaries in the region would be cut down to size.

The outcome of the global war on terror has been questionable. It is true that there have been no spectacular terrorist attacks on US soil in the last two decades and Osama bin Laden was killed a decade ago. Yet, the US exit from Afghanistan does not smell of victory. The 20-year military intervention has spawned new terrorist organizations and franchises of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region has grown. Syria is an open wound. In West Asia, Russia has been able to reassert itself successfully. Beijing, meanwhile, has benefited from Washington’s preoccupation with the global war on terror by emerging as a strategic rival and challenging US supremacy in economic, technological and ideological dimensions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Most significant, however, is the loss of US credibility that President Joe Biden has sought to restore by assuring allies and partners that “America is back.” Many claim that they were not consulted about the timing of the Afghanistan withdrawal although the writing had been on the wall. In the region, concerns have grown as the US announced it is withdrawing its missile defense batteries from Prince Sultan airbase outside Riyadh.[2] In July, the Biden administration announced that it will also withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2021,[3] although some troops will stay on for training purposes. For Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, all of whom had been calling for a US exit from the region, the messy exit from Afghanistan was an opportunity to paint the US as an exhausted and incompetent superpower and a sign that the US was unlikely to return to the region, at least not under a Biden presidency.

Did Biden have a choice?

There is a sign common in American stores – “If you break it, you own it.” Since the Afghan intervention ended on Biden’s watch, he owns it but cumulative mistakes by each of his three predecessors – Presidents Trump, Obama and Bush – contributed to this outcome. Yet, Biden had choices, although these were politically difficult, given the kind of polarization that US domestic politics has undergone.

Biden claimed that the Doha Agreement signed on Feb. 29, 2020 when Trump was in the White House, left him with a “choice between leaving or escalating.” However, Biden had reversed many of Trump’s decisions – returning to the Paris Agreement on climate change, resuming talks with Iran and re-joining the WHO. Second, the “forever war” was a myth because the US war had ended with the conclusion of Operation Enduring Freedom on Dec. 31, 2014. Since 2015, Operation Resolute Support has restricted the US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) role to “training, advising and assisting” the Afghan forces that took the lead in combat. (There was a limited counter-terrorism mission, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, carried out by a small number of US Special Forces). US troop strength came down to 8,500 and since 2015, less than a hundred US and NATO troops have been killed in action. The costs of the military operation had come down from $100 billion a year to less than $40 billion. The problem was the narrative about the longest war that seemed directionless. What was unsustainable were the losses borne by the Afghan security forces during this period – over 50,000. But the reasons for that lay further back in the past. When Biden retained Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the fundamentally flawed February 2020 Doha Agreement that he had criticized as a “bad deal,” the die was cast. 

Legacies of Bush, Obama and Trump

The problem is that as vice president from 2009 until 2016, Biden had been complicit in the gradual legitimization of the Taliban. What had begun as a counter-terrorism mission in 2001 had already morphed into a counter-insurgency operation, as the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team led the US into Iraq. The American nation-building initiative in Afghanistan intended to ensure that it never hosted terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda again, lost favor in Washington.

The Taliban was neither disarmed nor defeated, they had merely melted away into safe havens and sanctuaries across the Durand Line in Pakistan that enabled them to regroup and re-establish their financing mechanisms. Pakistan’s Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) resumed its old game with the US, running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, emerging as the front-line state partnering with the US in Afghanistan while subverting US efforts by aiding and abetting the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they unleashed a spate of IED attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan aimed at undermining the Afghan government. US generals knew it was impossible to defeat an insurgency that enjoys safe-havens but it was an inconvenient truth.

Having distinguished the Afghanistan war as a “necessary war” from the “bad war” in Iraq, Obama accepted the demands from the generals for a surge in the US troop presence with the assurance that things would turn around in 18 months. He raised US troop levels to over 100,000 but also announced the drawdown, ending combat operations at the end of 2014. This may have been politically satisfying for Obama, but strategically speaking, it was disastrous.

However, there was a more fundamental change of policy under way. It was signalled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Asia Society on Feb. 18, 2011, where she recast the preconditions for talks with the Taliban – “insurgents to lay down arms and renounce violence, accept the framework of the Afghan constitution, and separate from Al Qaeda” – as outcomes of negotiations.[4] This was followed in the UN Security Council with Resolution 1988 on June 17, 2011 that separated the Taliban sanctions list from the Al Qaeda sanctions list, established under Resolution 1267 in 1999. Next came Security Council Resolution 2082 on Dec. 17, 2012 that eased travel restrictions on Taliban members to enable them to travel and participate in peace and reconciliation talks. The result was the opening of the Taliban office in Doha, marking the second stage of legitimization from an insurgent force into a political actor.

All this continued in tandem with public testimony by US Admiral Mike Mullen calling the Haqqani network “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI.[5]  Clinton, on a visit to Islamabad, warned her hosts, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”[6] But the Taliban and the ISI were awaiting the next opening.

The next breakthrough for the Taliban (and Pakistan) came in 2018 when the Trump administration announced the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, who began direct talks with the Taliban. It was a step forward in the legitimization process. Khalilzad began by setting out four objectives – a ceasefire, cutting links with Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist groups, intra-Afghan peace talks and withdrawal of foreign forces, underlining that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”[7]

Eventually, he dropped the conditions and acquiesced to the Taliban stand – a time bound unconditional US withdrawal in return for safe passage. The other three issues were relegated to the sidelines without any timeframe. Even with regard to Al Qaeda, the Taliban commitment is not to cut all ties but only “to prevent any group or individual, including Al Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the US and its allies.” The document bore a strange title – “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the US as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.”[8] This rather clunky phrase was repeated more than a dozen times in the text of the Agreement, a clear indication that the days of the Islamic Republic established after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, were numbered.

The last favour the US did for the Taliban was to “persuade” the Afghan government to release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners, adding to its further marginalization. In fact, Al Qaeda complimented the Taliban following the conclusion of the Doha Agreement for having secured the US withdrawal.

This was the policy maze that Biden found himself trapped in. He had the option to change the flawed narrative of forever wars or take action against the safe havens but he chose to cut the Gordian knot by redefining the objective, declaring that the mission had been accomplished by killing Osama bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda, and assuring the American people that their security could be ensured by over-the-horizon kinetic options like drones.

What comes next for Afghanistan and beyond?

There is an old saying – wars get more interesting when the fighting stops. The First World War led to the Treaty of Versailles and the Second World War gave birth to the United Nations and the Cold War. The end of the Cold War provided a display of American hubris and the world still awaits what the end of the global war on terror will produce.

The process of legitimization of the Taliban was predicated on the hypothesis that it had changed and there is a Taliban 2.0. So far, there is little evidence for this. One thing is clear though – unlike the Taliban of the 1990s, today’s Taliban is more divided internally. Taliban negotiators in Doha, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban co-founder, presented a more moderate face but have been relegated to second-rung positions in the new dispensation. The commanders doing the actual fighting in the south and the west do not seem to have found positions yet in the new government. Instead, there is a large presence of Taliban leaders from the Quetta Shura (council of leaders), especially those who also held positions in the 1990s Taliban regime. Four of the ministers have spent over a decade in Guantanamo and were released in 2014 as part of a prisoner swap. More than half of the 33 appointments announced in the Interim Government are on the UN sanctions list.

The clear winners are the Haqqanis who are known for their close ties to the ISI. Stories abound that their takeover of Kabul was the revenge for 2001 when the Northern Alliance were quick to enter Kabul after the ouster of the Taliban even as Pakistan was pleading with the US to ensure some form of a transition. Today, not only does Sirajuddin Haqqani control the all-powerful Interior Ministry, his family and friends control the key portfolios of refugees, border management, communications and intelligence. More important, the Haqqanis will control the appointment of governors to seven eastern provinces that border Pakistan.

None of this points to the creation of an inclusive government that will share power with other ethnic groups who don’t necessarily subscribe to the Taliban ideology. In fact, the over representation of the Haqqanis (belonging to the Zadran tribe) is likely to create resentment among other Pashtuns from among the Ghilzais and the Zirak Durranis. Traditionally, it is the Durranis, Mohammedzais and Barakzais who have controlled Afghanistan. The current set up gives more clout to Ghilzais, Zadrans and Kochis who come lower down in the pecking order. Even if the reader is not familiar with these clans, the point is that the tribal divisions in Afghanistan will continue under the Taliban.

Signs of friction are already apparent as rumors have swirled in Kabul since mid-September about a bruising showdown (and perhaps even violence) between Mullah Baradar and Khaleel Haqqani, after which Mullah Baradar has not been seen. There are reports that he left for Kandahar.[9]

Pakistan has always found it preferable to deal with Islamist Pashtuns rather than the traditional ruling tribes that were more nationalist in their outlook. During the 1980s, the Islamist banner was necessary to rally the tribals to the cause of the jihad against the Soviet communist infidels, and then again, against the American occupiers and their puppet regime in Kabul over the last 15 years.

However, once the Pashtun returns to his homeland, he takes on a more nationalist color, as the Pakistanis found even in the 1990s. Pakistan suggested to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and founder who died of natural causes in 2013, that the Durand Line created by the British in 1893 between British India and Afghanistan, become a recognized boundary, but he rejected it as an unnecessary wall between Pashtun Islamic brothers. Pakistani Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan (son of the legendary Bacha Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi) famously said in the 1980s – I have been a Pakistani for 40 years, a Muslim for 1,200 years and a Pashtun for thousands of years. Already facing criticism from a new Pashtun group, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, the Pakistan establishment may find that linkages between Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are closer than they bargained for.

After having pushed for a US withdrawal, Iran and Russia have begun to sound notes of caution. Iran issued a statement on Sept. 6 condemning the attack and “foreign” interference in Panjshir and calling it a violation of international and humanitarian law (the foreign reference was to reports about Pakistani involvement in helicopter and drone strikes in Panjshir).[10]  Russia, another loud voice demanding US withdrawal, doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan but is worried about infiltration through Central Asian states; it has stepped up military exercises with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.[11]

China has traditionally relied on Pakistan to address its concerns regarding the presence of the ETIM (Uighur militants) in Afghanistan and in the tribal region. The Doha Taliban have assured China that they will not allow China’s interests to be threatened but it is unclear how they will deal with ETIM and other such terrorist groups that have been fighting alongside them to get the Americans out. According to a report to the UN Security Council in June, fighters from Islamic State-Khorasan number 2,000 and other non-Afghan terrorist fighters up to 10,000, “mainly comprised of individuals from Central Asia, north Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan, Xinjiang in China, among others. Although the majority are affiliated foremost with the Taliban, many also support Al Qaeda. Others are allied with ISIL.”[12]

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two countries among the three (along with Pakistan) that had recognized the Taliban regime during the 1990s, have barely made any comments on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Qatar is the only Gulf state that is active, partly because it hosted the Taliban Doha office since 2013 and also because the US is using Qatar as a transit point for evacuees.

For Biden, the issue was always about domestic politics. His defending the withdrawal decision could be debated but defending its implementation – that it could not have been done differently – is hardly convincing. Weeks earlier, Biden and his officials had dismissed any similarities with the 1975 exit from Saigon; yet, the images of desperate Afghans falling from a C-17 Globemaster as it took off will remain as enduring as those of the last American helicopter out of Saigon in April 1975.

For US allies, whether in Europe or Asia, issues about US credibility, commitment and competence have been revived. This is particularly relevant for Asia where China is pursuing an increasingly assertive policy. Neither the US nor its allies are likely to either return to Afghanistan in a hurry or even open up their purse strings in response to appeals for humanitarian assistance. At the UN conference on Sept. 13, pledges of $1.1 billion were made but the road from pledges to commitment to delivery is a long one and it is likely that conditionalities will be imposed about how, and in which areas, the aid is to be administered.[13]

For the last 50 years, Afghanistan has been a political laboratory. It had inherited a monarchy and since 1973 has experimented with a socialist republic, a communist dictatorship backed by the Soviet Union, warlordism, a medieval and brutal Taliban, and a US-backed constitutional republic. Yet each of these experiments has only added to the suffering of the Afghan people.

The US may have ended its longest war, but for the Afghans, peace remains a distant dream.

Rakesh Sood is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, India, and former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, France and Nepal and Special Envoy of the Prime Minister for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.