New Delhi: The regime’s boast that India is a “leading power” will soon be tested in Afghanistan. En route to his New Delhi meetings, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, briefly stopped over in Afghanistan. While announcing no timeline, he said the United States was definitely leaving Afghanistan. The only issue that needed to be resolved was Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be allowed to become a breeding ground for terrorism again.

If you consider the matter from the Taliban perspective, the United States is not leaving Afghanistan defeated or exhausted as the Soviet armies did just over three decades ago. The war in Afghanistan is stalemated and the Donald Trump administration has no desire to prolong the stalemate with the approaching presidential elections. While Pompeo refused to commit to a withdrawal timeline as any sensible state official would not (the Barack Obama administration made a fool of itself in this respect), Trump would still like the US troops back soon so he can turn it into an election issue. Troops’ withdrawal within this year or early next year should be a good guess.

The Taliban view would be that picking a fight with the United States, an ideological opponent but still located on the other side of the globe, is, ultimately, counterproductive and unworthy of the risks to be run. While the US would not reoccupy the country (short of a 9/11 repetition which looks highly unlikely), it still has enough means to inflict military catastrophe on the Taliban. It can also set loose proxy terrorist groups in the country like the Islamic State whose underground links with Washington’s spy agencies are public knowledge. If that starts an internecine war like the old mujahideen wars to be joined by the Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and others blessed by Iran, the Taliban will lose its grip on Afghanistan. In other words, the United States has capacity for menacing the Taliban. It turned the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The Taliban would not care for a repetition. In all likelihood, therefore, it would keep its peace with the United States once made.

Meanwhile, Russia, China and Iran have their own separate and joint equations with the Taliban. A senior Taliban official was hosted recently by China and the secrecy was blown by an Arab newspaper. It has hosted Taliban discussions earlier in Xinjiang and their links go back years. China is notorious for resource extraction in Afghanistan but it does not attract the same level of hostility in the country as the US does or its European allies or Russia, Iran or India. Besides, China is Pakistan’s “iron brother” and Pakistani assets in Afghanistan would be available to Beijing. China is also keen to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan and the Taliban, given China’s first-rate deal-making skills, should be expected to agree once it recaptures Afghanistan.

Russia also has deep links with the Taliban and probably deeper ones than Beijing’s. It is indeed the Russian opening to the Taliban seeing that the US occupation was headed nowhere that spurred Washington to become serious about withdrawal negotiations with the ousted Afghan regime. Russia has its soft underbelly of Muslim republics and Central Asian neighbours to consider because an upsurge of Islamism in Afghanistan would destabilize them and in turn add to Moscow’s ongoing troubles with the US and Western Europe on top of a stagnant economy. The Taliban too has an interest in cultivating Russia because it represents the only military counterpoise to the United States anywhere in the world although China is also expanding its overseas footprint in opposition to Washington. Russia, China and Iran also share common interests in Afghanistan and the Taliban would not desire to challenge this grouping without good reason.

A swift US withdrawal would, however, bring the most positive benefits to Pakistan which can again hope to exercise control over Afghanistan through its Taliban allies. The Taliban does not possess the old attachment for Pakistan and relations suffered enormous strains in the middle but landlocked Afghanistan cannot survive without the indulgence and support of its southern and eastern neighbour. Now with China and Pakistan closer than ever and China having risen to become a major economic power, the Taliban cannot ignore this axis if it harbours the smallest concern for Afghanistan’s well-being. And Pakistan is backed by the Sunni sheikhdoms which are also the sources of Taliban’s political power and military resilience with funds from them often channelled through agencies like Pakistan’s ISI.

Possibly the only outlier in the Afghan vortex is India which has committed over $2 billion in development and infrastructure aid without gaining any traction in the country. It doesn’t have the military heft of the major powers or the deal-making genius of China. The Taliban would not gratuitously oppose India once in power but it cannot sustain an administration without foreign support which will largely flow through Pakistan with smaller contributions from Iran and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours. And while Pakistan may profess not to seek a strategic depth in Afghanistan against India, it would already be actively working in that direction. The rest of the world is weary of India-Pakistan disputes (especially as India won’t countenance foreign mediation) and it would take extraordinary diplomatic exertions on the part of India (sweetened with trade concessions) to refocus global attention on Pakistani mischief in Afghanistan directed against India. As long as the Taliban is not being primed against the United States, Russia, China or even Iran, the outside powers won’t be interested in Indian complaints against Pakistan. And it is then that India will be tested as a “leading power”. Sadly, India lacks strategic vision and the outcomes cannot be comforting.