Biden is right in arguing that the US has accomplished its primary goal of the original intervention in Afghanistan 20 years ago: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan that launched the 9/11 attacks.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, al-Qaeda’s infrastructure was fully regenerated and posed a present and immediate danger to the US and its allies. Thanks to Obama, that threat was defeated in his first term, symbolised by the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, deep in the heart of the Pakistani army home base.
But the Afghan Taliban has never disowned their al-Qaeda ally, despite promising to do so in the agreement negotiated by the Donald Trump administration. Nor have they seriously engaged with the Kabul government on a political process to end the war.
Rather than talking, the Taliban have gone on the offensive across the country. They have seized control in much of the countryside, including, ominously, areas long regarded as strongholds of the government and its allies, like Badakhshan in the northeast. They have captured border crossings with Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan, increasing the sense of isolation for the government forces.
Pakistan’s army and its InterServices Intelligence (ISI) play a key role in the Taliban offensive. Without logistical support from Pakistan, the Taliban would be hard-pressed to operate in such a widespread way. Of course, Pakistan has been the Taliban’s patron since its creation in the 1990s.
It is impossible to defeat the Taliban as long as Pakistan provides sanctuary and safety, training, equipment and funds for the Taliban. Pakistan cannot be defeated, as it is anuclear-armed State and has the fifth-largest population in the world. As Obama wrote in his memoir, A Promised Land, ‘The Riedel report made one thing clear: Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.’
It is curious that Biden has so little to engage with Pakistan. He has yet to talk with Imran Khan. He has retained the Trump negotiator instead of selecting a fresh face. The Pakistanis profess that they want a political solution, not a military victory by their protégés. Why not test them? Why not invite Khan to Washington or to Nato headquarters in Brussels?
The greatest danger in the current situation is that the Kabul government will crumble under the pressure from the Taliban. The momentum of victories will snowball, as it did against the Mohammad Najibullah regime in 1992. This is far from inevitable. Many Afghans do not want to revert to the medieval hell the Taliban created in the 1990s. But it is a real danger.
India has an important strategic interest in the survival of a viable Afghanistan that is not ISI’s puppet. It should step up support for the Kabul government. One area it might take on is providing technical support for the Afghan Air Force, which is heavily reliant on contractors who are leaving with the Americans. India can also cooperate with Iran to help Kabul — Tehran will not work with Washington.
A Taliban victory in Afghanistan will have serious consequences for the global jihad. It will give impetus to extremists in many places, including Kashmir. It will strengthen the position of the generals in Islamabad. The stakes are high.