Afghanistan, QUAD and the Way Forward

Khushmita Dhabhai
31st October 2021

Picture Courtesy: AP

Not all is lost in Afghanistan. Leveraging the state’s current crises to pursue a set of strategic interests is, in fact, a possibility that the QUAD could seek to explore. Beyond the notion of expanding into the continental aspect of the Indo-Pacific, involvement in Afghanistan might pave the way for the QUAD nations to consolidate current channels of bilateral cooperation with Central Asian countries. All four QUAD nations have already, in various capacities, strived to develop new strategic relations with Central Asia. Therefore, “involvement and investment in Afghanistan will institutionalise and consolidate” these relations. Moreover, the opportunity to curb growing Chinese influence and exploitation of a post-US led Afghanistan is, by all means, a very lucrative bait for the QUAD. At the same time, having experienced varying degrees of terrorism themselves, the QUAD might seek to involve itself in Afghanistan and mitigate the growing likelihood of militancy and violent religious extremism.

These factors propel one to question the scope and nature of a QUAD-led involvement in Afghanistan. Might it be military-based, or would it be restricted to merely aid and assistance?

 The Unlikeliness of a QUAD-led Military Intervention

A QUAD-led military intervention in Afghanistan is highly unlikely in light of each partner state’s present geopolitical circumstances.

For instance, post a complete withdrawal of its troops by August 2021, the United States is far too tired to return to Afghanistan. In the sheer rarity that it should experience a need to do so, the unwelcoming Afghan neighbourhood makes intervention extremely difficult. It is believed that Russia, for example, has been exerting pressure on its former Soviet ally, Tajikistan, to be uncooperative with American endeavours at establishing military bases within its borders. The impact of the same notably manifested itself in American officials resorting to operate beyond the horizon after multiple failed attempts at persuading Tajikistan. On a similar note, withering relations between Washington and Islamabad make the logistical sustenance of an American military force a baffling complex. Maintaining a military force in Afghanistan posed serious challenges even when the U.S. could rely on routes through Pakistan and the Northern Distribution Network. By designating Pakistan as the unreliable ally in the War on Terror, the United States has considerably strained its relations with the country in recent times. Moreover, it is equally important to consider China’s convenient designs towards  the Central Asian countries currently being courted by the U.S.; particularly, in the pursuit of filling the void left by the American withdrawal. These situations are indicative of the Afghan neighbourhood’s disenchantment with the United States- a phenomenon that would not corroborate a military intervention in the region by the U.S.

In terms of Australia, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Button have expressed their distress over the disappointing and tragic situation in Afghanistan, neither has acknowledged the necessity for the U.S. and its partners to intervene. Instead, a growing consensus amongst academics in Australia supports the American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Moreover, being the canary in the coal mine with regards to Chinese expansion and belligerence, Australia views the withdrawal as an opportunity to redirect resources and strategic attention towards containing China. This stance is further fortified by the Australian government’s advocacy for increased American troops in Darwin instead of urging its partner to intervene in Afghanistan. Therefore, these activities are revealing of Australia’s reluctance towards a military intervention in Afghanistan, at least in the near future.

Japan, in its stance on a military intervention, is no different from Australia. It would rather employ its forces in preparation for the imminent war over Taiwan than deploy them in a geographically benign Afghanistan. The plausibility of a Chinese invasion of the Taiwanese Island induces an existential threat on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Consequently, in the fear that Japan could be next in Beijing’s list of targets, the country would prefer employing its forces in Taiwan. While Japan might continue its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, a military intervention by the country appears highly unlikely.

India is no different from its partners when it comes to the question of militarily intervening in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban ouster in 2001 and the onset of reconstruction in Afghanistan, India has been one of the most significant civilian donors. By solely investing in infrastructure and capacity building, India chose to maintain its strategic autonomy staunchly. The reasons for this decision might encompass the fear of triggering a hostile Pakistani reaction via the Haqqani network and the desire to exercise flexibility in its relations with the U.S, Iran and Russia. Would India want to retain its strategic autonomy within the framework of the QUAD? Well, in the near future, this might persist.

The QUAD, as of now, has predominantly proven itself a personality-driven platform. From Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s withdrawal from the QUAD in 2008 to President Donald Trump’s ‘America First Policy’, individual leaders’ inclinations have significantly impacted their engagements with the QUAD. Moreover, India is the only QUAD nation with the closest proximity to China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Therefore, considering the volatility of its borders, India would be more cautious with its armed engagements in Afghanistan. Particularly since no other QUAD nation would harbour more significant risks and stakes than India in this situation.

Consequently, India is far too cognizant of the interests it has a stake in the Indo-Pacific region to ever lead a voluntary military intervention in Afghanistan. Additionally, the QUAD’s personality-driven reputation and the nature of India’s relationship with key players (Pakistan, Russia and China) reveals that it will not succumb to pressure from within the QUAD to support a military intervention and forsake its strategic autonomy either.

Increased Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan

While a military intervention seems unlikely in the near future, the QUAD could seek to increase its degree of humanitarian assistance in the bid to develop a stake in reconstructing Afghanistan. A stake it can later exploit to its benefit.

QUAD-led Humanitarian Assistance should, in the short run, succeed a political entente with the Taliban and Afghanistan’s neighbours. This is critical to the creation of an environment conducive to humanitarian aid and the operation of aid organisations. Additionally, assistance should encompass a shared aim of salvaging the Afghan banking sector, which underpins legal economic activities, as well as potential relief operations (both in the short and long term).

Long term assistance from the QUAD is undoubtedly dependent on the partner nations’ recognition of the Taliban as the de-facto ruler of Afghanistan. Their engagement, in particular, if undisrupted and exceeding that of any other state/organisation, could seek to follow a conditions-based approach: wherein the QUAD effectively guides the Taliban’s actions in return for assistance. This could include trade-offs on the lines of activating the Afghan National Procurement Authority (NPA) to facilitate the efficient procurement of aid and its corruption-free division and operation in the state. The QUAD might also seek to use these trade-offs as a pretext for increasing dialogue with the Taliban over the promotion of a pluralistic and inclusive political system that strives towards guaranteeing fundamental human rights to every citizen. Gradually, the extent and frequency of these trade-offs could increase per the demands of the situation.

Growing Emphasis on Counter-Terrorist Measures

Cooperation by the QUAD nations in the realm of counter-terrorism is a critical step towards countering the incidence and impact of violent extremism.

Although all four nations have highlighted the potency of action in the realm, the discussion has remained more strategic than tactical in nature. If the QUAD were to develop a framework of cooperation in counter-terrorism, then it would need to pursue a more comprehensive intelligence-sharing network amongst the grouping. Transcending beyond mere bilateral-level cooperation, to the likes of that between India and the U.S., should be prioritised in creating the fundamental architecture of the QUAD’s counter-terrorism policies. Moreover, by developing commonly funded forums and agencies on the containment of terrorism in the Indo-Pacific, the QUAD might consider leading an ecosystem of numerous South Asian countries- deliberating over the best counter-terrorism practices.

Conclusion

Afghanistan’s potency in world politics is arguably eternal. For the QUAD, this presents an opportunity to expand into the continental aspect of the Indo-Pacific. While a QUAD-led military intervention appears unlikely in the near future, humanitarian assistance and cooperation over shared counter-terrorism policies emerge as viable avenues for the partner nations to pursue their common strategic interests in Afghanistan.

 

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are those of the Author

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