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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington to strengthen India's relations with the United States has taken place when President Biden's domestic approval rating is low. According to Gallup, it has dipped to 43 percent in the eighth month of Biden's presidency, second only to President Trump in recent history, and largely attributed to a surge in US COVID-19 cases and the disorderly US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden retrospectively redefined the US objective in Afghanistan. The day after the Taliban occupied Kabul, he said that the two clear goals of the United States in Afghanistan had been "to get those that attacked us" and "make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a tool to attack us again." He made some perfunctory remarks on the centrality of human rights in the US foreign policy and committed to speaking for the basic rights of the Afghan people.
Contrastingly, President Bush had declared on the day of the 11 September attacks that the United States would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them". On 7 October, 2001, the day Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, he had said its operations were designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations.
He later elaborated that the war was "against those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them." The Taliban's Islamic Emirate collapsed within weeks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the executor of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in a joint operation of the Central Intelligence Agency and Inter-Services Intelligence in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in early 2003. US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Soon thereafter, President Obama conveyed to the Afghan leadership that the Taliban was Afghanistan's responsibility.
No country will put itself at risk for another's security. Yet, how nearly 20,000 US troops and contractors were stealthily pulled out the night of 1 July shocked the Afghans. Before leaving, the contractors incapacitated the electronic air defence mechanism of the critical planes and helicopters left behind ostensibly for the use of the Afghan security forces. The contractors also took away aircraft repair tools and maintenance manuals. The Afghan government capitulated to the Taliban soon thereafter.
Biden's realpolitik-driven decision to withdraw in a disorderly manner from Afghanistan has tarnished the reputation of the United States and raised questions about its trustworthiness. In justifying the precipitate pull-out of US troops, Biden said the United States would remain focussed on direct threats to the US mainland.
For the rest, over-the-horizon capabilities would suffice. Biden has been reminding Americans that even as Vice President, he was opposed to the US troop surge in Afghanistan ordered by President Obama. He had famously said that he would not send his son to Afghanistan to "risk his life" for "women's rights". This attitude shows the United States as a fair-weather friend.
US, India and Pakistan
Terrorism and AfPak-related issues also formed part of the Modi-Biden conversation, which focused mainly on COVID-19, climate change, the Quad, and building a transformative India-US partnership. In the India-US Joint Leaders' Statement issued after the talks, they reaffirmed that the two countries stood together in a shared fight against global terrorism, will take concerted action against all terrorist groups, including groups proscribed by the UNSCR 1267 Sanctions Committee, and condemned cross-border terrorism. They denounced the use of terrorist proxies. In a strong message to the Taliban regime and Pakistan, they emphasized the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups that could be used to launch or plan terror attacks.
Their joint message to the Taliban was that it must abide by the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2593 (2021), which demands that Afghan territory must never be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, ensure the safe, secure, and orderly departure from Afghanistan of Afghans and all foreign nationals and to respect the human rights of all Afghans, including women, children, and members of minority groups. They determined to continue to work toward an inclusive and peaceful future for all Afghans.
While the United States is sensitive to India's concerns, its priorities in Afghanistan are distinct from India's. It is eastward of India that convergence between their interests is closer. India's involvement with Afghanistan was to enable the Afghan people to stand on their feet and make their own decisions. In the long term, India was hoping that the Afghan people would build a peaceful and stable nation by becoming a trade, transportation, energy, and minerals hub, connecting South and Central Asia. Both these objectives seem remote under present circumstances.
The United States has different imperatives in AfPak, as Biden has repeatedly outlined in recent statements. Though Pakistan's double-dealing is well understood by everyone, there has been no retribution against it. India might well have to prepare to tolerate continued transactional US-Pakistan collaboration should the United States wish to retain a real military capacity in Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue to have salience for the United States, but less than it had before the US pull-out.
How Quad will engage in AfPak
A significant part of the Modi visit was the first-ever, in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders from Australia, India, Japan and the United States. From informal consultations among officials, the Quad has evolved into a formal forum of multi-level, plurilateral dialogue amongst its four members. They stress the non-strategic aspect of the group's composition to dispel that it represents a coalition against China, whose spokesperson describes it as an "exclusive closed clique". The Quad's March statement following an online meeting of their leaders spoke of the four countries striving for "a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic¯values, and unconstrained by coercion," without naming China. The Quad nations conduct the Malabar naval exercises, the last of which was held in November 2020.
Modi spoke of the Quad as a "force for global good" at the White House meeting on 24 September. All participating countries sought to broad-base the Quad, by adopting a positive agenda comprising norms, standards, economic partnership, and pandemic cooperation. In their Joint Statement on Friday, the Quad leaders championed adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas."
Two members of the Quad were mainly engaged militarily in Afghanistan (Australia and the United States) and two (India and Japan) were involved in development efforts. With the United States disengaged from Afghanistan, how the Quad countries will engage in the AfPak region will unfold as the situation evolves. They have begun well. In Washington, they practically reiterated all that was said in the India-US Joint Statement on countering terrorism, warning Pakistan without taking its name, and their attitude towards Afghanistan. They committed to "closely coordinate" and "deepen" their counter-terrorism and humanitarian cooperation in the months ahead by following UNSCR 2593.