New Delhi: While India is in the midst of a horrible election campaign, its sights are off Afghanistan where the Taliban may return to power sooner than you think owned and guided by Pakistan. Two top US generals, the latest to speak being a commander undergoing confirmation hearing to head the US Central Command, have admitted that the war in Afghanistan is stalemated. The United States-backed Afghan government controls fifty-six per cent of territory while the rest is in constant and unvarying possession of the Taliban. The United States has started another round of diplomacy with Zalmay Khalilzad but the whip hand may be held by Pakistan. The United States’ troubles with Iran are growing and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is proving a bigger headache for president Donald Trump than the White House factored with bipartisan consensus building for America to punish him for the Jamal Khashoggi murder. US casualties are also rising in Afghanistan. Cumulatively, all this could lead the Trump administration to a snap withdrawal from Afghanistan and letting it fall to the Taliban hordes. The consequences to Indian national security from a Taliban conquest of Afghanistan could scarcely be exaggerated.

The Afghan stalemate was evident for years but neither did the United States military accept it as openly as now nor was it obvious to the armed forces’ leadership that its counterterrorism strategy for the country was deeply flawed from the beginning. The United States used Pakistan as a transit country for war logistics for Afghanistan while fighting its proxies in the benighted state. Does this make sense? The logic of the situation made it imperative for the United States to neutralize Pakistan first by compelling the Pakistan army for joint action in FATA and in urban areas of Pakistan where the Taliban leadership lived in comparative luxury protected by the ISI. At the time of the Afghan invasion, the United States threatened to bomb Pakistan to the Stone Age if it did not cooperate in the ouster of the Taliban. Pakistan promptly complied. Subsequently, the United States lost the leverage on Pakistan. It can be dated to the Kunduz Airlift of November 2001 in which Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists together with Pakistan army and ISI advisers escaped in the face of advancing US and coalitional armies.

From then on, the United States was even strangely averse to breaching the sovereignty of Pakistan in hot pursuit of terrorists. No doubt the United States pushed for joint operations but Pakistan resolutely refused permission. FATA was the obvious target but it was out of bounds for the United States. Drone attacks cannot substitute for boots on the ground. The profound reluctance of the United States to antagonize a manifest double-crosser could be rooted to the United States’ military’s soft corner for Pakistan from the years of the mujahideen wars fought against the former Soviet Union. You can see the sympathy in one Rambo and James Bond movie each although the Bond flick went as far as making a Taliban leader an Oxbridge man. Having fought a long war together, US generals could not conceive of their Pakistani counterparts as treacherous and even fanatical Islamists in some cases. When Pakistani military commanders made no secret of seeking a strategic depth in Afghanistan against India, US generals received the intelligence indulgently as though it did not concern them or affect US interests. One former US general heading the Afghan war effort alluded to Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan as Pakistani “countermeasures”. If the United States were to continue to make the opportunistic distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists, how was it ever going to win the war in Afghanistan? On US military advice presumably, the US government poured billions into Pakistan but a leopard cannot change its spots.

In the end, Afghanistan has been a bungled war. The key to Afghan peace lay in Pakistan and the United States lost it. After seventeen years comes the admission that the war is stalemated. Mercurial as he is, it would take Trump next to no time to announce an Afghan withdrawal. Since assuming office, he has castigated the military for not being able to resolve the Afghan crisis. The Afghan debacle will need a scapegoat and it may be the secretary of defence, James Mattis. India is pinning hopes on Mattis to persuade Trump to waive any contemplated sanctions on the S-400 deal with Russia. It may turn out to be misplaced hopes. The United States may still be able to secure itself from an Afghan withdrawal using drones for targeted assassination of terrorist leaders located in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere. This option was always present. But India is next door to Afghanistan. What happens when the Taliban seize Kabul again? The Kandahar hijack occurred this month twenty years ago. Are we better prepared for a terror regime which sees no purpose in camouflaging its intentions as Pakistan does?