AMERICA’S ignominious exit from Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan National Army, the fleeing of President Ashraf Ghani and the rapid takeover by the Taliban, have all been stunning developments.

Twenty years after the United States and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, the Taliban are back in power in Kabul.  The US spent over $ 2 trillion in these two decades and at the height of the occupation there were 130,000 NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. Over $ 88 billion was spent to build the National Army.  This does not include the billions of dollars spent by the United Kingdom and other NATO allies.

The current narrative of how in the last 20 years the United States and the West created a “democratic” State does not include the thousands of civilians who died in the aerial bombardment by the US and its allies; 40 per cent of the civilian casualties were caused by the aerial bombing.  That the Ashraf Ghani government had no worthwhile popular support and was riddled with corruption and the venality affected the army too was something which was deliberately hidden in all the media narratives.

The “war on terror” proclaimed by President Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks had dubious antecedents.  It should not be forgotten that its targets in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime and Osama Bin Laden were themselves the products of the jihad launched by the Mujahideen against the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Osama Bin Laden and the various Islamic extremist elements, who flocked to the jihad which was financed by the CIA and equipped through the Pakistan ISI, transformed into the Al-Qaeda. As for the Taliban, they were the progeny of the Afghan Mujahideen forces mainly belonging to the Pashtun nationality.

The “war on terror” launched by President Bush and his neocon advisors soon morphed into an instrument of aggression for pursuing the hegemonic designs of US imperialism.  The next target after Afghanistan was Iraq in March 2003.  In the most duplicitous act of aggression, Saddam Hussein was accused of having links with Al-Qaeda when, in fact, Osama Bin Laden had denounced him as an “atheist” for running a secular regime.  The trail of destruction continued with the extension of the war on terror into Libya and Syria.

It is an irrefutable fact that wherever imperialist aggression and occupation occurred, that spawned more terrorism and terrorist outfits. In Iraq and Syria, the Al-Qaeda and even worse the Islamic State sprung up.  After Libya was devastated, various Islamic extremist groups emerged, who later spread their influence into north-western Africa.  Imperialist aggression and terrorism have gone side by side.

The Taliban take-over is a deeply disturbing development given its reactionary fundamentalist character. With the Taliban ensconced in power, the shape of the future of Afghanistan is unclear and uncertain. Much will depend on how the new Taliban-controlled set-up deals with the issues of ethnic diversity, women’s rights and treatment of minorities.  The previous Taliban regime had a brutal and retrograde approach towards all these three issues.  The United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on the situation in Afghanistan held on August 16 saw a common understanding emerge – that a redline should be drawn on not providing shelter to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda on Afghanistan soil.  This, of course, is a vital concern of India.  The Taliban is also affiliated to the Sirajuddin Haqqani faction which had targeted Indian projects in Afghanistan.

The US debacle in Afghanistan has lessons for India.  Right from the outset in 2001, the then Vajpayee government declared full support for the US military invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, it was disappointed that the US did not avail of the logistical facilities offered by India and instead relied on Pakistan.  The lining up with the United States over the years has now culminated in India becoming a strategic ally.  The series of military agreements that the Modi government had signed have given this alliance a military character. The signing up onto the Quadrilateral Alliance (Quad) was the final step. The strategic tie-up has effectively blocked India’s strategic autonomy and undermined an independent foreign policy.

If the United States launched its “war on terror” to strengthen its hegemony mainly in West Asia, the Quad is an expression of its strategy to contain and isolate China.

Last week, foreign minister S Jaishankar said that while there is convergence with the US in the East, there are divergences in the West, particularly Afghanistan. This means, the government wants to cling onto the Quad, while expressing its dismay at the way the US prematurely left Afghanistan.

Giving primacy to the alignment with the United States, as evident from the Afghanistan policy, has ended up isolating India in the region. It is significant that Russia and Iran who were on board with India in supporting the Northern Alliance, when the Taliban was in power between 1996 and 2001, have now established relations with the Taliban. They have, along with China, already held talks with the Taliban before the take-over. The current policy of the Modi government with its narrow anti-Pakistan, anti-China focus is isolating it from all our South Asian neighbours.  If it does not recalibrate its foreign policy and strategic outlook, the Modi government will have to brace up for operating in a more hostile regional environment in the coming days.

There is the danger of Islamist radicalism growing in South Asia as a result of the Afghanistan developments, The Hindutva policies of the BJP governments make our country vulnerable to such influences. The persecution of the minorities creates fertile grounds for this. Only the pursuit of firm secular policies can counter this trend.

In immediate terms, the government has to address some of the urgent concerns of the Afghan people who have close historical and cultural ties with India.  India must facilitate the arrival of people who want to seek asylum as refugees.  As for the hundreds of Afghan students, who are studying in educational institutions around the country, they need their visas to be renewed or extended.  Financial assistance through scholarships and grants must be ensured for the needy ones.

At the heart of our new policy on Afghanistan must lie the interests and welfare of the Afghan people, not geo-political power play.