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SOURCE: NATIONAL HERALD

Veteran Republican politician George Aiken, pissed off by the then administration’s dithering on withdrawal from Vietnam, had given a suggestion that reverberated once again last week as the US decided to wind up in Afghanistan. “Declare victory and run,” he had famously quipped. And he was only half-joking.

In New Delhi, however, the gloom has set in so severely that no one is in the condition to crack even a pithy joke. Our habit of putting all the eggs in one basket has blown on our face, and how. New Delhi was still holding a strand of hope when it appeared briefly that Biden would drag his feet on Trump’s commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan. Truth be told, Pentagon officials, who often found themselves sidelined during Trump’s rule, had expected that they would prevail upon Biden. And for a few days, it appeared that they were succeeding. However, it appears that somewhere in between Biden found his bearing and prevailed. Prevailed to a point where not only did he set a new draw-down date, he is now threatening to do it without any condition attached. This last bit couldn’t have sounded sweet to mandarins in New Delhi.

So, what’s this condition-based withdrawal that Biden Administration has abandoned? Well, under the original plan that veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad had made the Taliban agree to, the draw-down of troops and the curtailment of the mission was dependent on the Afghan peace process and Intra-Afghan dialogue. No more.

The US understands that neither Ashraf Ghani nor Abdullah Abdullah is enthusiastic about the Intra-Afghan dialogue, to put it very mildly. And nor are other partners—mostly Tajik and Uzbek—from the erstwhile Northern Alliance. Under the circumstances, the US believes that announcing such a decision will at least fill their hearts with a sense of urgency if not the fear of God.

The Taliban on the other hand have sniffed victory and have further hardened their stand. They also know that at this point the US is only interested in an orderly withdrawal and only the Taliban can guarantee it. Militarily speaking, an army is at its most vulnerable when it is withdrawing. It is, therefore, no surprise that the US wants to concede further grounds to the Taliban to take their assurance that they wouldn’t be attacked while withdrawing.

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So, where do all these leave India? Past mistakes aside, it is very clear that the mandarins in New Delhi are still deluding themselves. Only this time, this can have catastrophic consequences.

Several Northern Alliance figures have visited New Delhi in the last few weeks indicating that at least a section of our foreign policy czars is under the impression that they will be able to prop the alliance up and stop the inevitable: the complete takeover by the Taliban.

I cannot even start to say how delusional this line of thought is if someone is out to pursue it. When Iran and Russia were by its side, the Northern Alliance barely managed to survive outside its sanctuary in Northern and North-western Afghanistan. Now that both Tehran and Moscow have firmly established an understanding with the Taliban, India finds itself standing alone.

What I fear more is that propelled by the delusion of grandeur and poor understanding of its power or the limitations of it, a section of mandarins might be coaxing the government to even look at the military solution to this predicament.

If you find this idea fanciful, do remember that Lal Krishna Advani once almost agreed to it. And this was a time when military brass still had some courage to shoot down appalling ideas from the political class. Sadly, not anymore.

Let me tell you that sending troops to prop up the collapsing Afghan Army or the Northern Alliance is what Islamabad wants India to do. This strategic folly is what they want India to commit. I can only hope that veteran hands in foreign policy prevail upon such a line of thinking. Unless we stop seeing Afghanistan from the Pakistani prism, we will not be able to come to a solution.

The United States is not going to withdraw from the region. It needs a footing somewhere to continue with its destabilisation efforts of Iran, Russia and China. Informed sources have told this correspondent that the Biden Administration has opened a line of communication with both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, exploring the possibility of establishing a military base there. The compensation is expected to be good and both Dushanbe and Tashkent want to come out of diplomatic isolation. However, Russia will do its best to stop any such development. However, having said that, failing Plan A, the US always has the bases in the Persian Gulf to project its power.

Where does this leave the Taliban and Afghans? Well, I see misery in the foreseeable future. Once in power, the Taliban will roll back several progressive achievements that were made despite everything. It will get worse for the weaker sections of society, especially women. However, 2021 is not 1996 and the Taliban understands it too. It will need investment and dole-outs for Afghanistan to survive and it knows that it will have to curtail its worst impulses for optical purposes at least.

In addition, it also fears the rise of the Islamic State. When it comes to bigotry, it has competition now and if it continues to perpetuate it some of its supporters will likely move to Team A aka Islamic State. Therefore, it is in the interest of its survival that it checks upon the worst of its impulses.

Then there is the China factor. The Taliban knows that only China can commit game-changing investment. China, in lieu, would like the haven for East Turkestan terrorists to be removed. Taliban has no love-lost for them either. This relationship would be mutually beneficial.

India can also pitch in. There is still time to open a line of communication and dangle the carrot of investment in front of the Talibs. Sure, it will be initially rebuffed. There is too much bad blood. However, we will need strategic patience and a deft hand to negotiate this swamp. This is not unachievable.

However, the question is, do we have people at the helm worthy of being handed such a fragile task? Your guess is as good as mine.