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Desperate rush

Desperate rush
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On Monday, July 12, General Scott Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan ceremonially relinquished his position in yet another step towards the US ending its 'forever war' by August. The Pentagon recently indicated that the pullout is around 90 per cent complete at this point and total withdrawal could only be days away. Predictably, things in Afghanistan have steadily gotten worse as time runs out for any illusion of a peace deal for the region. As the US abandoned its bases and turned out the lights, the Taliban made rapid advances in capturing territory. The Taliban has recently claimed to hold 85 per cent of the 421 odd districts in Afghanistan though this claim has been disputed by both the UN and the Afghan government. A more realistic number that is being cited is that the Taliban holds one-third of all districts in Afghanistan. What's particularly noteworthy is that the Taliban has begun its process of retaking the country with the north this time as opposed to its old power base in the south. The last time the Taliban was in power, it was the north of the country where it had met the stiffest resistance from a coalition of local ethnic factions known as the Northern Alliance. This time the Taliban has pushed hard to control the north before the US fully pull-outs of the country. Though the Afghan government asserts that the Taliban's gains are not strategically significant, the Taliban has gained control of several border crossing areas and has essentially managed to limit the Afghan government presence to multiple scattered and fortified provincial capitals that must now be resupplied by air. But, even though the Taliban has engaged in this form of blitz warfare to keep resistance to a minimum, resistance nevertheless seems to be gathering. More than 20 years after they first put down their arms, there are indications that the groups that formed the Northern Alliance are once again remobilising. For now, the organisational structure is limited and the group has not formally taken shape. But all over northern Afghanistan, civilians are once again taking up guns to help security forces keep their communities safe from the Taliban. There is a deep sense of abandonment and American betrayal. But the Taliban assault has not just been limited to the north. To the south, the Taliban is already knocking on the doors of Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan behind the capital Kabul. The retaking of Kandahar is important to the group as the city was pretty much the birthplace of the Taliban and holds great symbolic and strategic value to the group. For now, while security forces are holding, the Taliban is continuing to slowly make headway as it attempts to encircle the city. The fighting is getting so intense that India has pulled out its diplomatic personnel from the Consulate General in Kandahar though it maintains that the consulate has not been closed down. And speaking of India, the country is of course extremely concerned with the rapid breakdown in order in Afghanistan. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs under Minister S Jaishankar is steadily ramping up its diplomatic efforts in the region. Minister Jaishanakar is currently out and about with plans to attend an upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Tajikistan that is expected to focus on the group putting out a joint statement on the situation in Afghanistan. Still, the route for Indian diplomacy is not going to be easy. With the US gone or largely gone, Pakistan is once again the dominant player in Afghanistan and everyone seems to know it. Everyone from China to Russia and even Afghanistan is leaning on Pakistan to continue its snake charmer performance with the Taliban. Needless to say, Pakistan doesn't want India involved in the Afghan peace process and appears hellbent on limiting Indian influence in the region. To complicate matters, Pakistan playing matchmaker seems to also be bringing together the Taliban and China to a certain extent. The group recently made statements where it called China a 'friend' and invited it to invest in development projects in the region for mutual benefit. Significantly, the Taliban has also promised to keep terror outfits away from Xinjiang where China fears they may radicalise the minority Uyghur population. For China, this is a desirable turnout as it plans to link Afghanistan to its Belt and Road initiative via the CPEC. India, for now, appears to be sticking to its old principles of only communicating with the Afghan government though there are persistent rumours of India being in contact with the Taliban which the government has repeatedly denied. That said, India may not have a choice in the long term about engaging with the Taliban if its plans to have any say in the peace process. Another interesting card that India seems ready to play is finding a reliable partnership with Iran which is not exactly friendly to the Taliban. Like Russia, Iran is also concerned about the Taliban control of Afghanistan and is not exactly comforted by Pakistan's questionable control of the group. While both Russia and Iran seem to be currently engaging with the Taliban alongside China and Pakistan, it is safe to say that the arrangement is one of convenience and it may well be possible for India to reach out to both Russia and Iran to form another side to this peace process away from the machinations of China and Pakistan. In conclusion, India's engagement in the region is currently in flux. While India has been content at being a background development partner for decades, it is possible that the current turn of events may prompt a more direct intervention if the rapidly changing circumstances make it unavoidable. That said, there is no expectation of India going boots on the ground in Afghanistan though the Afghan government itself has expressed that it may lean on India in the future to provide it logistical and training support, particularly for its air force.

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