Decoding the Delhi declaration
Moscow, Tehran and the Central Asian Republics are using the India card to send a signal to Islamabad; this suits New Delhi
The Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, recently held in New Delhi, reasserted the known positions of multiple regional actors seriously concerned about the spillovers of the conflict. The Delhi Declaration covers vast ground from “collective cooperation” against “radicalization, extremism, separatism, and drug trafficking” to the “necessity of forming an open and truly inclusive government” in Kabul.
Given the long list of ineffective regional and global processes around Afghanistan, it is worth asking what purpose another declaration really serves. This question is pressing in the light of India’s near-zero presence on the ground, and a severe setback to its geopolitical aim of enabling a continuing strategic, if not structural, balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Apart from the fact that the declaration didn’t offer solutions to Afghanistan’s problems (it was not meant to), while offering a long list of geopolitical wants, it has two key takeaways.
One, the dialogue seeks to message those Taliban factions marginalised in Kabul that checking the power of Sirajuddin Haqqani and, by corollary, Pakistan, is essential for their political survival. There are myriad latent pockets of resistance to the Haqqanis within and outside Afghanistan. For non-Pakistani neighbours of Afghanistan, inclusive power-sharing in Kabul is a necessity to ensure long-term stability. Political partisanship in Kabul risks unabated violence coupled with famine and mass displacement, all of which may force other neighbours to intervene coercively in the future.
Two, counter to intuition, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) are more worried about the situation than India. On closer scrutiny, this declaration seems to be less about India’s regional leadership, and more about how and when New Delhi features in Moscow and Tehran’s Afghanistan strategy. To understand this aspect, one must focus on the timing and participation.
Issued just before the Troika-plus — China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States (US) — meeting in Islamabad, and after a series of dialogues from which India was excluded, the declaration seeks to pressure Pakistan into accepting a genuine power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. It strengthens Moscow’s hand in relation to Islamabad and Beijing, both of whom are at odds with Russia’s (and Iran’s) vision of inclusivity. Moscow’s unilateral statement on the dialogue indicates that it is open to utilising the “India card” in Islamabad for what it’s worth. Russia’s posturing is not bad for India, even if it doesn’t mean a positive overhaul in its geopolitical fortunes.
There is, expectedly, precedent for such signalling. In March 1999, the then US assistant assistant secretary of state, Karl Inderfurth, confided his vexation at Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate in the Six-plus-Two process on Afghanistan (comprising Iran, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as the six, along with Russia and the US as the plus two) to then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. To pressure Islamabad, he recommended changing the Six-plus-Two to an Eight-minus-One format, and excluding Pakistan. If that also failed, he advocated another “stick” i.e., including India. Even though this didn’t happen, this was not a hollow option given India’s support to the Northern Alliance.
The constellation of participants is equally important. Iran and Russia are aghast at the marginalisation of the Taliban factions which enjoyed their patronage. They are left to deal with a Pakistani proxy disinterested in power-sharing — a certain recipe for disaster. Equally, CARs are concerned about an Islamist spillover and mass displacement due to famine and violence. Their participation in the dialogue was as much a given considering India’s recent outreach and a nod from Moscow, as was Pakistan’s absence.
The twist came from China’s refusal to participate. Beijing’s decision was somewhat expected given the troubled Sino-Indian relations and Sino-Pakistan strategic alignment. But there was still hope in New Delhi that Beijing might participate given its concerns about Islamabad’s mishandling of the Afghan situation. Recent attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan, the resurgence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which recently entered a Haqqani-arbitered tenuous truce with Rawalpindi, and a secret counterterrorism deal with the US, have raised questions in Beijing about the efficacy of Islamabad’s Afghanistan strategy.
China’s decision to not isolate Pakistan marks a subtle, unstated, but sharp divergence between Moscow and Beijing on the Afghan question i.e., China finds it expedient to outsource its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad, but Russia and Iran, despite their broader alignment with Beijing, are unwilling to put all their eggs in Islamabad’s basket. True, Moscow’s presence in the Troika-plus could arguably mean that Sino-Russian differences on Afghanistan are over-hyped. But, if this was the case, Russia wouldn’t have bothered signing a joint declaration with India one day before heading to Islamabad for a meeting in which the US remains a key player.
India did well to time the dialogue just before the Troika-plus meet (which didn’t spring ugly surprises for Delhi — diplomatic recognition of the Taliban remains far in the future), in announcing humanitarian aid for the people of Afghanistan, channelising the concerns of Kabul’s non-Pakistani neighbours, and, shaping international diplomacy from the outside where it does enjoy considerable capital. But New Delhi must not fall for its own propaganda. Without equities on the ground in Afghanistan, such declarations will do little more than signalling political preferences. To have the geopolitical bite that it did in March 1999 when Inderfurth considered options with Albright, India will need to put its money where its mouth is.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS, University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
The views expressed are personal