Print This Post
9 September 2021, Gateway House

Imperial powers: Leaving chaos behind

The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan is not the first time that a hasty and messy departure of foreign forced has taken place. History is replete with examples of imperial powers suddenly leaving countries that they secured for years, without ensuring a peaceful transition of power. The sub-continent has now seen it twice, the last time was in 1947, when the British preponed their withdrawal from India, hastily partitioning the country and leaving a region at war with itself. Ambassador Neelam Deo, co-founder, Gateway House, explains why and how this happens.

post image

Produced by: Saloni Rao, Shivika Dudeja


Sifra Lentin:

Hello and welcome to the Gateway House Podcast on why imperial powers simply leave: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I am Sifra Lentin, the Bombay history fellow at Gateway House. My guest today is Gateway House co-founder, Ambassador Neelam Deo.

The sudden withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, leaving that country in turmoil is not the first time such a hasty and messy withdrawal of foreign troops has taken place. History has umpteen examples of imperial powers suddenly leaving countries that they secured for years without ensuring a peaceful transition of power. Close to home, the British preponed their withdrawal from India from 1948 to 1947 hastily partitioning the country and leaving a region at war with itself. We have Ambassador Deo with us today to give us an understanding of why the U.S. left in such a hurry, is there any comparable example from history for such a withdrawal, and what will be the short and medium-term fallout for this on India?

So let’s get started without much ado. Neelam, it seems that imperial powers just leave, like Britain did with India. Its deadline leaving was 1948, but it preponed its departure to 1947. The U.S. did the same with Afghanistan, they abruptly leave, turn their backs, and head home. It leaves behind devastation that lasts for decades. In fact, Afghanistan is the outcome of the British leaving India, divided and if we play out 75 years later, why do you think they just up and leave?

Neelam Deo:

Thank you for having me on. Sifra. I think there are two or three different issues here, so I’m going to try to answer them in parts.

One is, of course, the question of why they leave. It’s simply that the cost to the home government- in the Indian case, it was Britain, in the American case leaving Afghanistan, it is the American government. The cost of sustaining armed suppression in another country becomes greater than the revenue it earns so the government does not earn a great deal of revenue from these adventures, but their corporations continue to profit hugely. In the Indian case, as you know, the British East India company is estimated to have drained out trillions of dollars, worth. And so they leave because the government then decides to withdraw its armed forces, the instrument of suppression.

Why do they leave suddenly? Sometimes they leave suddenly, sometimes it’s over a much longer period of time. It varies and it depends on when it happened. You know, Spain left Latin America in the 19th century, and since then over time, but mostly in the 20th century after the second world war, countries have left at different points of time, because there was so much opposition to their presence. So whether it is Vietnam, whether it was the French in Algeria, the British in India, the British in Kenya, these were all long-standing independence movements. The timing of their actual departure is linked to domestic events in the home country.

So why did Britain leave India? Because it simply could not spend enough on armed forces to continue to suppress the Indian population. You know, there is a mythology about how it was a peaceful departure. It was nothing of the kind, it was peaceful on the Indian side. The Indian population did not engage in violence, led as it was by Mahatma Gandhi, the British used a lot of violence to suppress the Indians and we have just celebrated the anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where people were gathered in a closed space and fire was opened on an unarmed population. So they left because, after the Second World War, Britain was so indebted that it could not sustain keeping its armed forces in India. And it had actually won many victories in that war by using the Indian army; the Indian soldiers fighting in Africa, in Southeast Asia, even in France so the situation on the ground is not the reason why they leave, but they leave because they can’t sustain suppression any more.

In the American case, several presidents have spoken about how they were spending too much money in Afghanistan and it’s true. I think the estimates vary from 2 trillion upwards, depending on what all is taken into account. So you can see that in the Indian case, the Indian National Congress was set up at the end of the 19th century and it took more than 50 years for the British to actually leave. In Afghanistan, of course, the Americans came in as a matter of revenge, in a rage, for the 9/11 terrorist incident in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, DC. But once the armed forces come in, things then seem to acquire a momentum of their own. When the British left India, the Indians because the independence movement had gone on so long, the Congress party had a plan for the governance of India, but actually, everything was overtaken by the British plan for the partition of India.

In Afghanistan, the Americans have allowed it to be occupied. The Taliban have not won military victories, they have been enabled to reoccupy Afghanistan 20 years after they were driven out by American armed forces. So it’s another kind of tragedy. Your question of the turmoil in Afghanistan, being a continuation, actually, of the way the British left India by preponing their timetable right at the end, is absolutely spot on. An undivided India bordering Afghanistan would not have played the kind of maligned role that Pakistan had played. And also the influence of the frontier Gandhi in that region would have been to mitigate the kind of horrors that have fallen upon Afghanistan in the last 40 years now.

Sifra Lentin:

Neelam, my second question to you, is that, is it possible to compare the geopolitical setting of this departure by the Americans with the British leaving in 1947 and also with Europe leaving its colonies in Africa? At that time Europe was exhausted from the two World Wars, but this time around, the world is different. It’s blossoming with new technologies and fewer dependencies like oil, shale upended oil, and the geopolitical importance of the Middle East. And there is a dominant China to contend with. So keeping all this in mind, don’t you think the setting is very different from the way imperial powers left in the past, with the present?

Neelam Deo:

You know, it is different and yet it is the same.

Post-World War two when the Europeans were actually pushed out of their colonies in Asia, in Africa, the Cold War had just begun to emerge- the United States, (the West, so to speak) against the Soviet Union. So what were the consequences for our region? The West, the United States really led an alliance with Pakistan against the USSR. You know this is history now, but at that time, they, along with setting up NATO in Europe, they set up SEATO to the East of India and CENTO to the West of India, the Central Asian organization there, and the Southeast Asian alliances to our East. So in that sense, there were very interested in aligning with Pakistan because India had already made it known that it would remain non-aligned. They wanted to both, secure all supplies in the Gulf, as well as the British wanted to keep India destabilized. And you will remember that within days of the independence of India and of Pakistan, the Pakistan army invaded Jammu and Kashmir pretending to be tribesmen when they had a British army commander. So Britain actually connived in that invasion of India, of Jammu and Kashmir.

Where are we today? There is re-emerging great power rivalry between, this time, the United States leading the West and China. So in a way, it’s not so different, it’s not completely different. China hopes to dominate, not just Asia, but also Eurasia through infrastructure building, through its Belt and Road Initiative, and through trapping countries, in a debt trapping situation, as we have seen in the case of Sri Lanka already, but this is also true of the central Asian republics where pipelines, roads, railways have been built so that commodities and oil can travel towards China and away from China all the way to do Duisburg in Germany. And China has also built and acquired ports in Europe, and it is seeking to similarly entrap European countries like Greece, where it has bought port Piraeus. So you’re absolutely right that oil dependency is no longer significant for the West but it is still a reality for major Asian countries like India, like China itself, Japan, South Korea, etc. Oil or fossil fuel dependencies are no longer the most important factor globally in a way. You know, social media has become a major destabilizing factor all over the world, except for China, which has created a surveillance state. So in democracies, in open countries, social media is being manipulated through cyber means, cyber warfare if you like, and that has become in a way, the new oil, post this situation of the re-emergence of great power rivalries.

Sifra Lentin:

Neelam, given this past, and the present contemporary situation, how do you think the situation in Afghanistan is likely to turn out because it’s a little different, in a sense that it’s not a clash of civilizations, I mean you have pointed out that there are two power blocs being formed, but also in the case of Afghanistan on a micro-scale, it is also a legitimization of terrorism as a governance structure. Isn’t it, in that sense?

Neelam Deo:

Yes. I agree entirely. I think we must all recall that clash of civilizations is an American thesis. Remember that it was the United States and Pakistan financed by Saudi Arabia, which created the Mujahideen- holy warriors to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The Muhajideen then fell into a kind of civil war and they were ousted by the Taliban, Talibs, students who had been nurtured in Pakistani madrassas, they were armed, they were trained and they were, most importantly, directed by Pakistan’s ISI in ousting the Soviet Union. As you know, the Soviet Union itself collapsed two years later and you had the fall of the Berlin war, etc. So globally, there were all these other events taking place.

In fact, you know, the ultimate cynicism is talk in the United States of now aligning with Taliban, setting aside 9/11 to fight against the Islamic State, Khorasan, which is certainly a horrendous terrorist organization, but it is difficult to make a choice between the Taliban, between the IS Khorasan, between ISIS in Iraq and Syria so no, it’s not a clash of civilizations. These terror groups were actually spawned by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia together. But is it the mainstreaming of terrorism? As governing structures, absolutely. To be talking about aligning with the Taliban and there’s a lot of discourse going on around the world, led again by Britain who is keen to recognize the Taliban and probably will, as soon as the Taliban is able to announce that it has formed the government. And so it is a mainstreaming of terrorist organizations as governments, which have misogyny as their policy, declared policy. It is really a very frightening and tragic situation that we’re all in.

Sifra Lentin:

Neelam, my last question to you is what are the possible short and medium-term implications for India of having a Taliban government in Kabul?

Neelam Deo:

Well, the short-term implication is tragic and very difficult for India because India has lost a friend in Afghanistan. The elected government of Ghani and before that, of Hamid Karzai, both of which had been supported by the United States, by Western democracies, with NATO forces in Afghanistan. So in the short run, it’s very difficult as Pakistan were trying to funnel terrorists from Afghanistan into Kashmir. And in fact, all over India as had happened when the Taliban first took over in Afghanistan. You remember the terrorist attacks in Mumbai from the nineties onwards, the attack on parliament in Delhi, the attack on army institutions in Jammu and Kashmir. Those were a fallout of ISI directing hardened terrorists from Afghanistan into Kashmir. In the last few years, the situation in Kashmir has changed drastically with the governor’s rule, with the abolition of Article 350, we will have to see how it plays out now.

In the medium term of course it will continue to be troublesome for India, but you know, terrorist organizations also have an internal politics. In Afghanistan right now, among the reasons they have not been able to form a government is the rivalry between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani network has been described by American government officials as a veritable arm of the ISI, the intelligence agency of Pakistan. So even though the Taliban are beholden to Pakistan, it is not a unified recognition. It is not that there aren’t any divisions amongst themselves. And so we have to anticipate that in the medium term, terrorist organizations, like the TTP, the Taliban, which focus and attack Pakistan will seep into Pakistan itself.

The ETIM the Uyghurs who have also been based in Afghanistan will certainly try to seep into China. The West itself will not be spared even though the claim being made at present is that Al-Qaeda has been weakened, if they make some kind of deals with the Taliban, there will not be a resumption of terrorist attacks in Europe or in the United States. Let us hope there will not be, but by now, there are enough radicalized people living inside the West with Western nationality. We saw only two days ago, the terrorist attack in Afghanistan by a Sri Lankan origin young man who had lived in New Zealand since the age of 10 years. So I think it’s very troubling and in the medium term, it is going to be a problem globally.

Sifra Lentin:

Thank you so much Neelam for being with us. This was a superb overview of what is happening in Afghanistan and what we can expect in the coming days. Thank you for listening to the gateway house podcast. For more podcasts, and to read our articles, please log on to Thank you.

Sifra Lentin is Fellow, Bombay History Studies, Gateway House.

Neelam Deo is former Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast and co-founder, Gateway House.