NATO leaders at the Chicago summit of the alliance have endorsed a plan to relinquish combat command in Afghanistan by mid-2013. Most of the 130,000 troops in the country will be withdrawn by 2014 even as the alliance is now focused on the logistical challenge of planning the actual physical exit of NATO troops and supplies. Meanwhile, earlier this month during the US President, Barack Obama’s surprise visit to Kabul to mark Osama bin Laden’s death a year back, Washington and Kabul signed the much awaited strategic partnership agreement which stipulates that the Afghan security forces would take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year and all American troops would leave by the end of 2014. But the pact underscores America’s commitment to Afghanistan for a decade after its formal troop withdrawal in 2014 as this withdrawal will not include trainers who will continue to assist Afghan forces and a contingent of troops tasked with combating Al Qaeda through counterterrorism operations. Washington hopes that this pact will now allow it to participate more confidently in the NATO conference in Chicago later this month and set the terms of the debate. More significantly, though specific details are yet to be finalised, it provides some much needed clarity about America’s intended footprint in Afghanistan over the next decade. There has been growing concern in sections of the policy community in Washington, in Kabul and in New Delhi about the seemingly abrupt end to American security commitment in Afghanistan.

The US has now made it clear that it seeks “an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.” It is towards that end that the latest pact underscores the ongoing American role in bolstering Afghan democracy and civil society and pledges American financial support to Afghanistan through 2024. Though the pact still lacks clarity as it is not readily evident how the vague reassurances that the US is providing will get translated into operational policy, Washington has sent a clear signal that it will not abandon Afghanistan and will retain a presence in the evolving strategic realities in the region.

This is also a signal to the Taliban and other extremist groups that waiting out American forces might no longer be as credible an option as it may have seemed some time back. Washington’s new message will have particular resonance in India and Pakistan as ties between the two South Asian neighbours remain the most important faultline in shaping the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan will now come under renewed pressure to articulate a long-term policy of renouncing its ties with the extremist groups. The hedging strategy that Rawalpindi has been relying on is no longer a workable one with Pakistan’s dilemma about collusion between Afghan and Pakistan Taliban and the growing challenge of the Taliban to Pakistan getting accentuated with each passing day. Pakistan is recognizing the difficulty of managing post-America neighbourhood with Pashtuns inside Pakistan and Afghanistan asserting their profile. Moreover the larger reality is that Pakistan is today weaker than anytime in its history. The economy is in shambles, the sectarian divide is growing, the extremist groups it has nurtured are turning against the state, and it has no real friends left with even China preferring to maintain a respectful distance. Not surprising them that even the Pakistani Army Chief is speaking of the need for “peaceful coexistence” with India.

New Delhi, for its part, has been at a loss trying to respond to the rapidly changing ground realities in its immediate neighbourhood. Shifting messages from Washington has been a source of great concern to New Delhi. Now that some clarity has restored to the American posture, New Delhi will have to put its own house in order. New Delhi has not had a very consistent policy towards Afghanistan over the last decade. Part of it has been a function of the rapidly evolving ground realities in Afghanistan to which India has had to respond. But a large part of it has been India’s own inability to articulate its vital interests in Afghanistan to its allies as well as its adversaries. There is an overarching lack of coherence in Indian response as New Delhi seems to be perpetually on the defensive, first making Washington the sole pivot of its outreach to Kabul and then petulantly complaining about American unreliability. One the one hand, India has been signalling to the US that it views long-term American presence in Afghanistan as integral to regional security. On the other, it’s been reaching out to make common cause with the Iranians, who want to see a full and complete US withdrawal from the region. Iran has been putting pressure on Afghanistan not to process with the ratification of the US-Afghan strategic partnership pact. Even as India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan promising to enhance its role in Afghan security sector, it has at the same time reduced its economic footprint in Afghanistan. In the absence governmental support, Indian private sector, despite being keen to invest in Afghanistan, has been gradually withdrawing from the country for fear of becoming a target of the Taliban.

As a result, New Delhi has not only complicated its own future options but it has also lost allies who are having difficulty in viewing India as a credible partner in the emerging strategic realities in Afghanistan. Indian interests converge with the US in Afghanistan to a remarkable degree in ensuring that the Taliban does not get a foothold in Kabul and Afghanistan does not once again emerge as a launching pad to carry out attacks against India. The Washington-Kabul strategic partnership agreement provides India with crucial space for diplomatic maneuvering so as to regain the lost ground and expand its footprint in a neighbouring state where it remains hugely popular despite the lack of seriousness in its policy approach. The recent attempt to beef up intelligence sharing between India and Afghanistan is the first step in the operationalisation of the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership but more such concrete steps are needed to ensure that New Delhi maintains a substantial presence Afghanistan. As Washington and Kabul turn a new page in the Afghanistan saga, New Delhi would be keen to take this opportunity to make it a more credible actor in its neighbourhood. Washington has played its hand, it’s now up to New Delhi to respond adequately.