20 years after 9/11 attacks: War on terror turns full circle

India to feel the heat of the Big Game with a difference

Politics

September 11, 2021

/ By / Paris

20 years after 9/11 attacks: War on terror turns full circle

Almost 3,000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Credit: SEAN ADAIR/REUTERS)

Two decades after the global attention finally rivetted on the issue of international terrorism and countries acting as haven for terror groups, the world finds itself back to square one. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan and Pakistan is again positioning itself as the ‘only reliable partner of the west’ in the war on terror. But there are big differences between situation in 2001 and now as there has been a dramatic shift in global geostrategic and economic situation, with emergence of a powerful China, an increasingly belligerent Russia, rather reluctant US. India is trapped in the middle as it finds a way to deal with the new-old order.

As the world marks 20th anniversary of the dramatic terror attacks in the United States, the earth seems to have come a full circle, metaphorically speaking. Before the 9/11 terror attacks, the Taliban was firmly in charge of Afghanistan, that had been for a while the wild west of the Orient, duly aided, abetted and even controlled by Pakistan, especially its powerful army and the intelligence service, ISI.

Terror incidents, while frequent, were limited to the South Asian region, with India being the primary target and apart from sympathetic noises from all the western capitals, India’s complaints against Pakistan being international terror sponsor which could hit anywhere in the world were taken as raving rants of an envious neighbour who lacked the trump card that Islamabad possessed in terms of access to and control over the regime in Kabul, leaving New Delhi to manage on its own.

Pakistan had strong local support in terms of China and Russia, puzzled by India’s slow but certain gravitation towards Washington DC in strategic and geostrategic affairs, had started opening doors to Pakistan even in terms of military cooperation, something that had been a strict no-go area right from the independence till the turn of the new millennium. All this meant that India had to fight its own battles, pretty much alone, to fend off terrorism as well as keep a close eye on the dealings between Islamabad, Beijing and Kabul.

The situation that prevailed in South Asia in 2001, notably from India’s perspective, seems to be hardly any different today in 2021. After spending USD 2 trillion in a fruitless war which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, including in armed forces of United States and its NATO allies, the West has beaten a rather quiet retreat and is again trying to ‘arrive at some understanding’ with the fanatics in charge of Kabul to follow the ‘American model’ of a society and will eventually come around to a kind of uneasy relationship where Washington DC is again likely to offer ‘rewards’ to the Taliban for ‘good behaviour’. One can reasonably expect the Taliban leadership to continue to string along the Americans, pretty much like they have been doing over the past four years since ‘peace talks’ began between the two parties, largely over the head of the powerless presidents, supposedly in charge in Afghanistan.

Making world safe: Each to his own

Right now, the focus of leaders of the United States and its western allies is clearly on getting some form of ‘guarantees’ that they, their citizens or interests would not be targetted by the Taliban and the other elements within Afghanistan. This seems to be translating into some kind of action already as two plane loads with Western citizens as well as some Afghans sponsored by the West have left Kabul in the last two days, almost two weeks after the Taliban had clearly said they would not allow any more evacuation to proceed beyond August 31 and also banned any more Afghans from leaving the territory.

But evacuations, even if not called so, have resumed and it would be but natural for the Taliban to have sought and perhaps obtained something on quid pro quo basis. A test of whether such an arrangement exists will become evident soon enough on what happens at the United Nations since Taliban continues to be listed as a terror organisation and at least 17 members of the Afghan government named by the Taliban figure on the UN Security Council sanctions list.

An early sign has come in the form of the US saying it will gauge the Taliban government by its actions. It clearly means that the US will ignore, at least for now, the fact that the Haqqani Network and other members of the Taliban leadership are sanctioned terrorists. The Taliban is bound to seek removal of these sanctions and seek international legitimacy.

It could see the US initiate action to dilute the sanctions or even get its allies to allow the Taliban to function and move about without any impediment. Such an outcome will of course spread cheer in Taliban and Pakistan, and it does not seem outlandish as both Russia and China, the two non-NATO holders of a veto power in the UNSC, have already begun their dealings with the Taliban. If the US moves in the same direction, it is hard to see France and the United Kingdom opposing it at all.

Besides many people in Afghanistan, one country which will be hit the worst by any softening of attitudes towards the Taliban is of course India. So far, over the course of past four years, the Taliban have gotten practically whatever they have sought, without much difficulty as long as they don’t cross swords with Uncle Sam.

There is nothing to indicate that the Taliban will also behave nicely with other nations, especially India and definitely not if their mentors in Islamabad can help. Pakistan has spent nearly a decade in international wilderness, but now that it is once again the de-facto gateway to Afghanistan, it will try to push its own agenda as far as cornering India is concerned.

Tectonic shifts in region in two decades

Both Pakistan and the Taliban are likely to get major support, at least behind the scenes, from China, which is highly unlikely to give up an opportunity not only to corner India and tie it down again in minding its borders against terror infiltration from the west, but to find pins with which to prick the United States.

Of the numerous big changes that have occurred in the region and across the world over the past 20 years, the biggest is the emergence of China as an economic and military superpower, the sole pretender to the throne that the US had occupied since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

China has a series of business, social and military disputes with the US and it is not likely to forget in a hurry the vast distance that India has covered since 2000, from setting its own foreign and security policies to one where it is one of the several US allies in the region, notably the Indo-Pacific where the tensions are the highest between the US and China.

The current terrible state of relations between China and India also stem from the proximity between India and the US. Beijing is increasingly treating India more like a satellite of the US that will pretty much do as per the priorities set by Washington. This has clearly made China much more belligerent vis a vis India, which can be seen in a sharp jump in border clashes between the two Asian nations in the course of past few years.

The relations between India and US have also not gone down very well with Russia which sees India no longer being a friendly country that is trying to maintain equidistance between Moscow and Washington. Russia has been India’s long-standing ally and rock of support, but with ties between Russia and US as well as other EU nations at rock bottom, Russia is not too thrilled to see India get into a tight embrace with the US and pretty much doing its bidding in Asia.

In such a situation, India faces a very delicate challenge and tough task of ensuring that its own interests in the region are not sacrificed at the altar of the United States. It would be better off tamping down the tensions with Beijing and rebuilding its relationship with Russia to reclaim that sweet spot of being friendly to both Moscow and Washington DC and not become a satellite of either.

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