Recent developments in Afghanistan have created a wave of fear and security challenges in its neighbourhood. In order to address this, in a unique initiative, India hosted the “Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan” on 10-11 November. The event was chaired by Ajit Doval, the Indian NSA, and the invitation was extended to his counterparts in the Afghan neighbourhood — China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and the five Central Asia Republics. All of them attended the dialogue but China and Pakistan turned down the invitation. While the former had ‘scheduling issues’, the latter accused India of being a ‘spoiler’, which was pretending to be a peacemaker. It is important to note that while Russia was invited, the extra-regional powers like the US and Turkey, which have considerable influence in the region were excluded.
When the Taliban entered Kabul on 15 August 2021, as India was celebrating its 75th Independence Day, there was a huge shock. Like most of the international community, New Delhi did not expect the government and the Afghan National army to crumble so easily. More significantly, there was a feeling of betrayal, as it appeared that the US had cut a deal with the dreaded Taliban without taking Indian interests into account. There was also a huge sense of loss as India had invested large sums in Afghanistan and had won the admiration and respect of the population cutting across social, ethnic and sectarian divisions.
It was a classic case of triumph of Indian soft power (from Indian soap operas to Indian hospitals and education institutions were the first choice of most Afghans). Unfortunately, this influence had no capacity to resist the brutal hard power of Taliban.
So strong was the sense of shock and awe that many in India, including certain sections of the government, even started talking about negotiating with the Taliban. Some even started daydreaming about a transformed benign Taliban, with which India could do business. Indian statements in the initial period were quite muted, as India had to ensure the repatriation of its citizens from Afghanistan.
However, with the passage of time, the Taliban soon started showing its true colours and reneged on most of its promises that were made while negotiating at Doha. For some time, the National Resistance Front based at Panjshir Valley was seen as the solution to this gigantic problem, but even Taliban’s sponsors — the ISI — saw the danger and the ISI DG personally camped in Kabul to ensure that the last vestiges of resistance were eliminated.
More dismal was the reaction of the international community, the US and the Western world had already shirked any moral responsibility. Russia and Iran, which had opposed the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, had started engaging with the Taliban to see the Americans out. China realising that the Taliban were the handmaidens of ISI, visualised a huge window of opportunity for itself, both in terms of transport highways through Afghanistan, as well its mineral resources. Even the Central Asian Republics, which should have been concerned with the presence of Taliban and its radical ideology in Afghanistan, were not on the same page.
With the exception of Tajikistan, the others maintained an ambivalent attitude. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Turkic-speaking Central Asian neighbours of Afghanistan kept their borders open and even communicated with Taliban, probably under Turkish influence, which now perceives an enhanced role for itself. Consequently, most negotiations on Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul did not include India.
More significantly, a big humanitarian crisis has been emerging in Afghanistan with food grains, medicines and other essential commodities vanishing fast. India wants to help the Afghan population without in any manner legitimising or strengthening the Taliban. However, the Indian offer of sending food grains to Afghanistan over land through Pakistan was rejected and India needed to collaborate with other neighbours of Afghanistan, to be able to send the aid to Afghan citizens directly.
Simultaneously, with the passage of time, Iran and Russia despite their continued engagement with Taliban started seeing the dangers of Taliban. Even the Chinese euphoria subsided to some extent. The Central Asians are also becoming aware of the dangers of Taliban ideology percolating across the borders. The composition of the Taliban government and its actions clearly showed that it was old wine in a new bottle.
The Delhi Dialogue took place at this critical juncture when most of Afghanistan’s neighbours are re-evaluating their opinion on Taliban. The biggest success of the dialogue was the quick acceptance of the invitations by the participants, which is a testimony to the fact that they consider India to be an important stakeholder, which has a major role in promoting peace and security in Afghanistan.
Another important achievement is the joint declaration by the participants, despite their varied interests and level of engagement with the Taliban. The statement talked about a government that represented the will of the Afghan people, represents all sections of Afghan society, and ensures the rights of women, children and minorities. More significantly, the statement emphasised the common concerns of terrorism, terror-financing, radicalisation and narco-terrorism emanating out of the Taliban-controlled Emirate. The participants also emphasised the need for humanitarian assistance to the Afghan population. It is pertinent to note the invite for the Dialogue was not extended to extra-regional powers with considerable influence in the region like Turkey and the US.
In order to whitewash its dark deeds in Afghanistan, Pakistan has organised the Troika Plus Meeting, which includes representatives from the US, Russia and China, besides Pakistan and the ‘Foreign Minister’ of Taliban Administration. It is Pakistan’s attempt to provide legitimacy to the Taliban administration, by seating its representative on the same table as the big powers. India, on the other hand, has established itself as a credible regional power and has engaged with the countries that are directly affected by the developments in Afghanistan. More so, India has made its position clear — instead of mere diplomatic engagements, India is looking at security assurances.
The Dialogue is the first step by India towards regaining its lost ground in Afghanistan. However, in the longer term, the only solution lies in either weaning the Taliban away from its obscurantist ideology or strengthening National Resistance Front to free Afghanistan from the Taliban.
The writer is the director of the India Foundation. The views expressed are his own.