U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan deals blow to Quad’s security objectives

Posted on : 2021-08-14 10:47 KST Modified on : 2021-08-14 10:47 KST
The repercussions of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan complicates India’s security calculations
An Afghan security forces member keeps watch in an army vehicle in Bagram U.S. airbase on July 5, after American troops vacated it, in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. (Reuters)
An Afghan security forces member keeps watch in an army vehicle in Bagram U.S. airbase on July 5, after American troops vacated it, in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. The deadline stated by President Joe Biden is Sept. 11 of this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s a little over a month away.

In early July, U.S. troops withdrew from Bagram Airfield, which had been a key base in the invasion of Afghanistan. The troops who had been training and advising Afghan government forces are no longer there. It would be fair to say that there are effectively no more U.S. forces stationed there.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is forcing neighbors to reevaluate their strategic priorities in foreign affairs and national security policy.

The “Great Game” surrounding Afghanistan has shifted, and the changing balance of power spells new threats for certain countries. The Afghan government is weak and unstable; the Taliban are on the ascendancy, with over a third of the country’s territory in their grip.

US withdrawal spells tensions for India

The country that feels the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan most keenly is India. Having land borders with two nuclear powers that have historically been either adversaries or rivals — China and Pakistan — India is becoming increasingly alarmed over the instability in Afghanistan.

It seems apparent that there will be reassessments within India over the level of the country’s participation in the Quad, which it had been hoping to use as leverage to rein in China. Within the broader scheme of things, India will need to readjust the strategies and priorities in its national security policy.

It wouldn’t be overstating things to suggest that the Quad’s very vitality depends on India. If the Quad does succeed, there could be greater pressure on South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand and others to take part in a “Quad plus.”

The opposite is also true. That’s why it’s important to look at the repercussions of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan from different angles.

Roughly speaking, we can predict two post-withdrawal scenarios for Afghanistan.

In the first, the current Afghan government is brought down by a Taliban onslaught. This appears more likely than the government remaining in place. U.S. intelligence authorities have predicted the current Afghan government will fall within six months to two years after U.S. forces depart.

The collapse of the Afghan government could be seen as India’s worst nightmare. For the past 20 years, it has adopted a “sandwich” approach to pressure its adversary Pakistan with economic and diplomatic support to the Afghan government — effectively taking advantage of Pakistan’s geographic location between India and Afghanistan.

But if the Taliban do take control of Afghanistan, that would result in an expansion of Pakistan’s influence, which is intertwined with the Taliban by means of regional and human networks. The result would amount to two big boulders pressing down on India.

To date, New Delhi has been taking part in the Quad as a shield against Chinese expansion. More narrowly, it has been seeking to offset its own weaknesses in Chinese naval and intelligence capabilities.

But if the situation in Afghan becomes unstable, India will have to shift the focus of its defense to combating Pakistan, which it has frequently clashed within local and total warfare since they achieved independence from Great Britain.

In a June 24 piece published in “Foreign Policy,” Michael Green, the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan will increase.”

He also wrote that India “will be forced to redirect further resources and attention to its vulnerable flank [its border with Pakistan].”

“Rather than enhancing India’s position, a U.S. withdrawal ties down one leg of the Quad,” he noted.

Another scenario is one where after its withdrawal of forces, the U.S. attempts to influence Afghanistan indirectly via Pakistan, along the same lines as its response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. If that possibility becomes a reality, it would deepen strategic distrust between the U.S. and India, rendering the Quad an empty shell.

A second possibility we can envision is where the current Afghan government remains in place for some time without being ousted by the Taliban. Among experts, few dispute that Afghanistan will represent a power vacuum in international politics terms — and that China will move to fill in the gap the U.S. leaves behind.

Afghanistan shares a border with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. The Chinese government will feel compelled to prevent anti-government forces there — which it has labeled “terrorists” — from setting up bases in Afghanistan.

In this scenario, India has to contend with China, an Afghanistan under Chinese influence, and a Pakistan in a close relationship with China. China is already envisioning a Belt and Road Initiative project that involves linking up a railroad from the southern Pakistan port of Gwadar through Afghanistan and on to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

An Indian pivot toward continental security would inevitably undermine the cohesion of the Quad, given its focus on maritime security. For those reasons, some Indians have been saying that the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would have a negative impact on the Quad.

That panic was evident in an opinion piece that Seshadri Chari, an Indian foreign policy analyst, wrote for The Print on June 2.

“At a time when the Quad is seriously considering multiple [maneuvers] to maintain strategic balance in the region [that would counter China],” Chari wrote, “the U.S.’ withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan will deal a blow to the Quad.”

A blow for Quad

In fact, the Quad’s dilemma for India is one that’s inevitable given the conflicting interests of the various participating countries.

The top priorities for the other three Quad members — the U.S., Japan, and Australia — are the South China Sea, the East China Sea, curbing China in the high-tech arena, human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the Taiwan question. The three want India to be more involved, and on a deeper level, in those issues.

While India is concerned about China’s growing naval power and reach in the Indian Ocean, it’s even more worrying that Chinese behavior on their land border has been increasing more truculent. India has also been nervously watching as China’s political, military, and diplomatic influence expands in South Asia, and Pakistan.

It’s difficult for other Quad countries to actively cooperate or take action on India’s traditional foreign policy and national security issues, which are continental in focus.

India started adopting a more proactive stance on the Quad after a skirmish broke out in Ladakh, a disputed area on its border with China, in June 2020.

By Yi Yong-in, editor-in-chief of Economy Insight

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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