India will host security czars of Russia, Iran and five central Asian countries for a security dialogue on Afghanistan on Wednesday that will explore firming up a common approach for dealing with the changed realities in Afghanistan. This format called the ‘Regional Security Dialogue' has had two meetings in Iran earlier, in 2018 and 2019, to shore up multilateral cooperation on security among the key players in the global 'East'.
India was supposed to host the next such interaction last year but the meet got postponed due to the pandemic. The event will now be hosted in New Delhi and will be chaired by NSA Ajit Doval.
What's the agenda?
The Eurasian allies will explore firming up a common approach for practical cooperation in confronting increasing threats of terrorism, radicalisation and drug trafficking following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul.
A press release from the Ministry of External Affairs said in this regard: "India has traditionally enjoyed close and friendly ties with the people of Afghanistan and has called for a unified international response to address the security and humanitarian challenges facing Afghanistan. The forthcoming meeting is a step in that direction."
The exercise is to reaffirm the consensus that after the pull-out of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, solutions to the crisis in Afghanistan must come from the region itself.
But why is India hosting a regional security event focussing on Afghanistan?
India enjoyed warm ties and a considerable degree of influence under the past Ashraf Ghani-led dispensation. Being a promoter of peace, stability and equally representative democratic government in Afghanistan, India's interests naturally aligned with the previous dispensation.
With the Taliban's takeover, the tables turned.
India justly regards itself as a neighbour of Afghanistan, given its legal and Parliament-mandated claim on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
But neither was New Delhi asked to join the negotiation table with Taliban, where Pakistan was present, nor did it get the invite to foreign ministers’ meeting among Afghanistan’s declared neighbours in Tehran and in Islamabad. So hosting a regional summit to approach the Afghan problem from its own point of was the logical next step for India
India had formally invited the NSAs of Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the conference. But two of the most important regional players, China and Pakistan, will be missing from the table after representatives of both nations turned down India's invite. Beijing cited scheduling issues while Pakistan blamed India's 'negative attitude' and decided to skip the meet.
"Pakistan has identified India as a hurdle to regional efforts to establish peace and security. Troublemakers can't try to be pacemakers," Pakistan's NSA Yousuf Moeen told reporters in Islamabad.
India, reacting to Pakistan's comments said its decision to abstain from the meeting was unfortunate but unsurprising. However, China balking at the prospects is a development worth noting.
"Pakistan's decision is unfortunate, but not surprising. It reflects its mindset of viewing Afghanistan as its protectorate. Pakistan has not attended the previous meetings of this format. Its media comments against India are an unsuccessful attempt to deflect attention from its pernicious role in Afghanistan," government sources told ANI.
China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation recently held a special session on Afghanistan, where India did participate. So it was expected that Beijing might return the courtesy.
On China skipping the dialogue, the sources said though it is not attending the conclave because of the scheduling difficulties, it has conveyed its readiness to maintain contacts with India on Afghanistan through bilateral and multilateral channels. "We would have been happy if China attended it but perhaps CPC Central Committee meeting could be one reason they were unable to attend," said the source.
Furthermore, another key component missing from the meet is Afghanistan itself. Previous RSD summits did have a legitimate Afghan government representative – then NSA Hamdullah Mohib. New Delhi has not invited representatives from Ashraf Ghani era -- most of whom continue to man foreign embassies -- so as not to further antagonise Taliban. Neither is it going down the path of inviting the declared government-in-exile led by Amrullah Saleh, which is of little consequence at this point. The Taliban was not invited given the lacunae on their status.
This seems to be a missed opportunity, especially since the Taliban seems to be in conversation with all major actors. However, it seems that Taliban have decided to remain positive with deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi, stating that the Taliban “welcome all the summits that aim to help Afghanistan”.
Iran will be represented by Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary, Supreme National Security Council, while Russia is sending Nikolai P Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council.
Kazakhstan's Chairman of National Security Committee Karim Massimov will represent his country while Kyrgyzstan is sending Marat Mukanovich Imankulov, Secretary of the Security Council of Kyrgyz Republic.
Nasrullo Rahmatjon Mahmudzoda, Secretary, Security Council of Tajikistan and Charymyrat Kakalyyevvich Amavov, Deputy Chairman of Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan on Security and Secretary, State Security Council will represent their respective countries.
The security officials are scheduled to jointly call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Doval will have bilateral meetings with his visiting counterparts. The NSA will also host the visiting dignitaries for a dinner at his residence
What's on the agenda?
The sources said all the participating countries have a "very high degree of convergence" on the security implications of the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan and the focus of the dialogue will be to have cooperation on practical terms to deal with the challenge
"All the participating countries want to be a part of the solution to the problem. You cannot probably say this about Pakistan," said a source.
They said dealing with the challenges of terrorism, radicalisation, drug trafficking, cross-border movement of people and threats emanating from military weapons left behind by US forces will be discussed at length at the dialogue.
The sources said the central Asian countries are not ready for any "export of ideology" from Afghanistan into their societies.
The security officials are expected to deliberate on cross-border movement of people from Afghanistan as well as the threat emerging from the military equipment and weapons left behind by the US forces in that country.
The sources said none of the participating countries have recognised the Taliban and all of them have similar concerns and worries over the situation in Afghanistan.
They said there was a credibility gap between Pakistan's actions and intentions in Afghanistan. Issues relating to humanitarian aid is definitely going to be part of the discussions.
The sources said India's commitment is for the people of Afghanistan.
"What we need is basically quick access to Afghanistan and Pakistan denied us the access. If Pakistan claims to be concerned about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, then it is very easy for Pakistan to allow Indian aid to reach Afghanistan," the source said.
Pakistan has emerged as a key obstruction to the flow of humanitarian aid to Afghans. India stands ready to supply much-needed aid but Pakistan is not allowing access to landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan did not attend any of the meetings organised in this format hosted by Iran and now it has also declined India's invitation.
This is not any protocol-driven dialogue, it is a special dialogue with a practical outlook, the big point is will Kabul read the writing on the wall.
Government sources said the meeting is not going to lead to any formal security architecture but it may trigger a gradual evolution of stepping up of security cooperation.
Ways to send humanitarian assistance is also the most likely actionable item on the list of priorities. Countries have expressed concerns over the financial quagmire created by the sudden US pull out and the impact it has had on Afghans.
All participating countries have common ground and concern vis-a-vis representation of minorities, inclusiveness, women rights and human rights in Afghanistan.
Another common ground is that none of the participating nations are in a rush to legitimise the Taliban rule. True that Russia and Iran and to that matter some countries in Central Asia have been engaging with the Taliban but the red lines are clear and also they strongly regard India as a key stakeholder in the region. There is unanimity and common ground which will be reflected during dialogue.
With inputs from agencies