How NSA-level talks bring India back in the Afghanistan game
A proactive approach has enabled India to actively contribute to the task of building a regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan
India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval hosted the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan in New Delhi on 10 November 2021, with the participation of his counterparts from the Russian Federation, Iran and the five Central Asian Republics. The first two rounds were hosted by Iran in 2018 and 2019. India had invited both China and Pakistan as well to the Delhi round. Not only that, but India also invited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan to participate for the very first time in this format. That Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf should have churlishly declined the invitation stating that “a spoiler cannot be peace-maker” is not surprising given Pakistan’s deep anxieties and machinations to deny India a role in the future of Afghanistan.
China may have cited scheduling issues to explain its absence, but there is little doubt that solidarity with “iron brother” Pakistan was the driving motivation.
The Delhi Declaration on Afghanistan issued at the end of the meeting is broadly on anticipated lines. There are several elements that clearly draw upon the language of the UN Security Council Resolution 2593 of 30 August 2021, adopted under the rotational presidency of India. These cover condemnation of terrorist attacks, emphasis on preventing the use of Afghanistan’s territory for sheltering, training, planning or financing any terrorist acts, protecting the rights of women, children and minorities and providing humanitarian assistance.
The newer elements in the Delhi Declaration pertain to call for collective cooperation against the menace of radicalisation, extremism, separatism and drug trafficking in the region. This is a remarkable common cause that was forged precisely because Pakistan was absent from the table. It is well-known that all the participating countries have been challenged by one or more of these scourges.
Pakistan, on the other hand, would never have countenanced the inclusion of the term “separatism” given its record of linking it to “self-determination” in the context of Kashmir. It is an entirely different matter that Pakistan’s policy on separatism in Xinjiang and the appalling treatment of the Uyghurs smacks of expediency, blatant double standards and craven subservience to China.
The menace of drug trafficking had not found a mention in UN Security Council Resolution 2593 perhaps because the focus of that resolution was on preventing the violence that had engulfed Afghanistan at the time, leading to a humanitarian crisis and the need to ensure a safe passage for the multitudes seeking to flee the turmoil. With the Taliban now at the helm in Afghanistan for nearly three months, the most urgent task before the global community today is the provision of humanitarian assistance in an open and transparent manner. Afghanistan’s coffers are empty.
It simply has no means to pay for any imports and the queues for daily necessities are growing longer. Under such circumstances, the rights of women, children and minorities are gravely imperilled.
The sanctions imposed in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover included the freezing by the US of Afghanistan Central Bank’s assets with the New York Federal Reserve and US-based financial institutions. The US and the international community have since made a fresh appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan. It is clear that the Taliban are here to stay. In the run-up to the final denouement and takeover by the Taliban, the US had been endeavouring to strike a political settlement as part of a deal allowing a face-saving retreat.
The lure of a possible lifting of US and UN sanctions against proscribed Taliban terrorist groups and individuals had been held out. The huge bounties offered by the US on key Taliban leaders, especially the Haqqani clan members now occupying high ministerial positions, are of diminishing relevance.
Russia has been trying to mainstream the Taliban leaders all along. Even though Moscow has not recognised the Taliban, it has included them in the Moscow Format consultations since 2018. Uzbekistan, a diplomatic powerhouse in Central Asia, has repeatedly reached out to the Taliban. Tajikistan, perhaps still smarting at the collapse of the Tajik resistance in Panjshir, has criticised the lack of a representative government in Kabul. Any sectarian violence would also impact Iran’s interests.
The current focus on humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan has many takers. The US has announced assistance of $144 million, albeit with stringent conditionalities. The routing of aid will be channelled through non-governmental organisations and UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, UNICEF and others. Germany too has declared assistance to the tune of $693 million, also through international agencies.
The return of UN and aid workers to Afghanistan will permit not just the monitoring of the distribution of food aid and other assistance, but may also help to check the excesses committed by zealots and criminals on vulnerable sections of society. It will be a daunting task to ensure their safety and security against the backdrop of mounting attacks by an irascible IS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan) which is viscerally opposed to the Taliban.
For India, the situation in Afghanistan has major implications. The threat of a spill-over of malevolence radiating out of Afghanistan into Kashmir cannot be taken lightly. The Indian Army, no doubt, is fully capable of countering such threats. The priority, however, is to preserve the goodwill earned by India among the people of Afghanistan over years, through capacity-building and high-impact developmental projects at the cost of billions of dollars. This is reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the G-20 Summit in October in which he alluded to the “friendship that the people of Afghanistan have for India”.
Both at the G-20 Summit and the SCO Summit held in September, the Indian Prime Minister unequivocally indicated India’s readiness to deliver humanitarian assistance to “Afghan friends” in an unhindered manner. However, for India, unfettered access to Afghanistan still remains a challenge. Pakistan will do everything within its might to thwart India’s initiatives. Its exclusive approach contrasts sharply with India’s inclusive approach. The silver lining is that the Taliban appear open to the idea of Indian assistance, following a meeting held with Indian officials on the sidelines of the Moscow Format consultations in October. India, like others, is keen to ensure that assistance flows to the people of Afghanistan through the UN, without diversion by the regime towards its own ends.
Prime Minister Modi himself has given fresh impetus to the regional dialogue and efforts to build lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. While receiving the participants attending the Delhi meeting, he succinctly outlined four key aspects that require focus: The need for an inclusive government in Afghanistan; a zero-tolerance stance about Afghan territory being used by terrorist groups; a strategy to counter drugs and arms trafficking from Afghanistan; and, addressing the increasingly critical humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. A proactive approach has enabled India to actively contribute to the task of building a regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan.
The author, a former Ambassador, is currently the Director-General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.
Aid groups and international agencies estimate about 23 million people, more than half the country, face severe hunger and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation
Women once made up at least a quarter of the government workforce. But the Taliban have allowed only a handful of female medical workers and educators to retain their government jobs.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, the hardline Islamists have banned music at weddings, beheaded mannequins and called upon Afghanistan TV channels to stop casting women