During his visit to New Delhi this week for the fourth US-India strategic dialogue, Secretary of State John Kerry assured India that the US is not about to abandon Afghanistan. To put it mildly, he has a lot of reassuring to do. India’s strategic elites are overwhelmingly skeptical — with good reason — of the Obama administration’s eagerness to talk to the Taliban.
Indians fear a replay of the mid-1990s, when the Taliban, backed by Pakistan’s army, set up an “Islamic emirate” that brutalized women and religious minorities and became a magnet for all kinds of terrorist groups, including those active in the Indian part of Kashmir. In 1999, militants hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft from Nepal to the Taliban safe haven of Kandahar and got New Delhi to spring three Islamist militants from prison in return for the lives of passengers on board. One of the freed men, Omar Saeed Sheikh, ended up plotting the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Over the past decade, one of the benefits of the US presence in Afghanistan to South Asia has been a sharp reduction of violence in Indian Kashmir. Since 2002, terrorism has declined year-on-year, in part because US and NATO forces have kept up pressure on the Taliban and its affiliates. Should America be seen as cutting and running from the battlefield, violence will almost certainly flare up across the subcontinent. Just as the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 gave jihadists a jolt of self-belief, so too will an unseemly American rush to the exits.
The first signs of things to come may already be visible. This year, Indian security forces have suffered more casualties in Kashmir than in either of the past two years. On Monday, Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists attacked an army convoy, killing eight soldiers and wounding 19. Together with Monday’s audacious Taliban attack in Kabul, it sends a message: America may be going home, but the Islamist threat in South Asia isn’t going anywhere.