India gets role in Joe Biden's Afghan policy but Pakistan, China may make terrain treacherous for New Delhi

With a sense of relief at being brought to the mainstream in the Afghan peace process, there is also a perception in New Delhi that the US is again rushing to meet an impossible deadline

Vinay Kaura March 09, 2021 15:10:20 IST
India gets role in Joe Biden's Afghan policy but Pakistan, China may make terrain treacherous for New Delhi

File image of US president Joe Biden. AP

The letter written by the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, to the top Afghan leadership has set new parameters of the Afghan peace process. As noted by Blinken in a possibly ominous tone, the Biden administration is seriously reviewing its Afghan policy, including the possibility of full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 1 May, a deadline stipulated by the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.

What Blinken’s message makes absolutely clear is the declining domestic support in the US for continued military involvement in Afghanistan as well as the demise of the Doha negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. However, as seen from New Delhi, the most important element of Blinken’s formulation is the role assigned to India, which has so far remained on the margins of the Afghan peace process.  But that is not the end of the story.

Blinken has suggested setting up two mechanisms to end the war in Afghanistan. First, a regional conference under the banner of the United Nations with foreign ministers of six countries – US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India – to discuss a “unified approach” on Afghanistan. Second, a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Turkey. Without a doubt, India’s inclusion in the regional conference format would be a positive development for New Delhi, but due to limited tactical options at its disposal, it is difficult to guess how India will preserve its interests in Afghanistan. Moreover, the second mechanism is enough to please Pakistan given the latter’s warm ties with Turkey.

In order to achieve its strategic interests (Pakistan’s security establishment continues to provide the Taliban fighters sanctuary in the tribal areas to counter India’s soft-power influence in Afghanistan, and control its foreign policies) as well as to stabilise Afghanistan, India has been trying to devise new diplomacy with the traditionally friendly countries. New Delhi has always considered Russia to be its partner in its Central Asia outreach. But Moscow’s Taliban policy seems to be moving in a different direction as Russia has become closer to Pakistan in recent years. Russia’s policy shift is ostensibly to prevent Islamic State from establishing its presence close to Russia’s borders of Tajikistan. But Russia’s growing proximity with Pakistan doesn’t get more complex than in Afghanistan.

Russia’s Presidential Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who visited Pakistan last month, met Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. After meeting with Kabulov, Qureshi remarked that Pakistan and Russia share a desire for “an inclusive political settlement (to) the conflict in Afghanistan.” On the other hand, Kabulov said that Moscow would convene a meeting to create a mechanism involving the US, China, Iran and Pakistan, leading to the announcement of a ceasefire, a contentious issue between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul regime led by President Ashraf Ghani. But Kabulov’s proposal of reframing Afghan peace talks and the possibility of an international meeting in Moscow met with either indifferent or hostile responses from other key stakeholders. In simple words, Washington, Kabul and New Delhi could not feel happy at Kabulov’s remark that the Taliban adhered to the Doha deal.

This may have increased the urgency in Kabul to keep the Russians in the loop. Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar went to Moscow on a three-day visit on 24-27 February. During this high-profile visit, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, asked the Taliban “to respect the already agreed upon terms and conditions for holding direct intra-Afghan talks, and not to put forward any new preliminary requirements.” This was a significant statement from Moscow which has hosted the Taliban many times. As Atmar later claimed, Russia is not in favour of removing the Taliban leaders’ names from the UN blacklist without progress in the Afghan peace talks.

Although Lavrov did say that Russia “will continue our contacts with the key external players, which include the United States, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the Central Asian countries. These contacts should help ensure the success of direct and inclusive intra-Afghan talks,” but he also echoed Kabulov’s formulation of the crux of Russia’s diplomatic effort in Afghanistan through the “expanded Threesome – Russia, the US and China – with Pakistan’s involvement.”

But the Biden administration’s proposal seems to be a counterpoise to Russia’s attempt to reframe the Afghan peace process in the sense that it seeks to include India in the revamped format. Besides, it is an unmistakable acknowledgement of New Delhi’s positive role in the reconstruction process in Afghanistan. After delivering Washington’s message in Kabul, special US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad went to Doha with the same recommendations to the Taliban. Thereafter, he telephoned India’s external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, in which they “discussed the latest developments pertaining to peace talks.” He also visited Islamabad to ask Bajwa’s continued support.

Since 2001, America’s Afghan policy has often proved easier to articulate than to implement. Biden’s ability to succeed in the treacherous terrain of Hindukush will also be limited by several factors, many inherited, and many structural. As some elements in Biden’s Afghan package are not acceptable to Kabul, particularly on the power-sharing arrangement in an interim set-up, Khalilzad might like Indian leadership to play a constructive role in persuading President Ghani to moderate his views. And it is not going to be easy for New Delhi to decide whether it is prepared to get involved in such a touchy issue.

With a sense of relief at being brought to the mainstream in the Afghan peace process, there is also a perception in New Delhi that the US is again rushing to meet an impossible deadline. Moreover, given its confidence in taking over Kabul militarily, the Taliban would not be willing to accept power with Ghani. And after the US is gone from Afghanistan, the Taliban is set to settle its scores with its political rivals and adversaries in the country. One must hope that the Indian leadership will raise many such issues during the forthcoming visit of US defence secretary Lloyd Austin to New Delhi.

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