India can bridge the gulf on Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, winter is coming. Almost three months after the Taliban dramatically seized power, governance remains at a standstill. There is a humanitarian crisis due to hunger and famine. Those who wanted to play the new “great game” over the dead bodies of ordinary Afghans are still counting the consequences of the spillover effects of the rapidly deteriorating security situation. There have been no victors in this appalling dynamic despite initial chest-thumping in some regional capitals. The United States (US) may have the luxury of moving on but regional players have to come to terms with the new realities of a highly volatile regional milieu.
As New Delhi convenes a meeting of national security advisers (NSAs) across the region under the chairmanship of Ajit Doval at the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, India is clearly signalling that it has no intention of giving up on its role as a key interlocutor on the issue.
India’s substantive engagement with Afghanistan over the last two decades was aimed at supporting the aspirations of ordinary Afghans towards the realisation of a stable polity — at peace with itself and with its neighbours. That paradigm still remains the most viable option as Afghanistan enters a new phase in its turbulent political evolution.
India’s regional outreach has been welcomed by key stakeholders. Russia, Iran and all the Central Asian nations are participating in the dialogue, thereby acknowledging that India has legitimate interests and leadership on this vital issue.
Pakistan, of course, is a different matter. Its initial sense of jubilation over a perceived “victory” in Afghanistan has waned. It is grappling with a fiasco of its own making as radicalisation sweeps through the Pakistani hinterland, forcing the political class and the military-intelligence complex to make compromises with the extremists. Islamabad’s India obsession continues to drive its worldview, reflected in Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf’s rejection of India’s invite. His description of India as a “spoiler” says more about Pakistan’s desire to view Afghanistan largely as a protectorate as opposed to an independent, sovereign nation, and reflects Islamabad’s reluctance to engage New Delhi. It also underscores its age-old desire to marginalise India.
China has predictably followed suit and decided to not attend the dialogue in India, but it has maintained that bilateral channels of engagement with India would continue.
For long, there has been an unnecessary debate in India and elsewhere about the country’s stakes in Afghanistan. As a neighbour, New Delhi’s stakes in the political trajectory of Afghanistan are self-evident. Since 2001, India’s proactive engagement in Afghanistan was a manifestation of those organic links that exist between the two nations.
As the political geography of Afghanistan shifted from Central Asia to South Asia, Kabul’s role as a link between the two regions is largely predicated on the strength of India-Afghanistan ties, not on Pakistan that itself is becoming marginal to the economic reimagining of the region. And while the West can afford to move out of Afghanistan, India will have to work with its regional partners in finding a long-term solution.
It is in this context that India’s decision to take a leadership role on Afghanistan is a welcome change from its historical reticence. Multiple challenges emanating from Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taliban require a comprehensive regional response and a new security architecture. No single regional State is in a position to deal with problems such as violent extremism, radicalisation, porous borders and drug trafficking on its own. Regional coordination is needed and, for that, security agencies across borders will have to work together.
India’s leadership will be essential in sustaining regional cooperation. India is as much a Eurasian power as an Indo-Pacific one. While global geopolitics may have evolved, regionally, New Delhi’s interests in and around Afghanistan converge significantly with those of Russia, Iran and Central Asia. Russia remains concerned about the spread of radicalism and extremism to its peripheries in Central Asia. Iran’s worry is around the persecution of Shia minorities and the refugee crisis. New Delhi remains one of the few powers that can manage to find some space to manoeuvre between Russian and Iranian priorities, on the one hand, and western anxieties, on the other.
After the Taliban’s takeover, many regional states initially viewed the Afghan challenge as one that could be contained within the borders of Afghanistan. There was a belief that as long as the Taliban was focused inwards and the borders of other nations were insulated, it wouldn’t matter. That was a false premise then, and events since have proven India’s longstanding position on the matter. The Taliban has made it clear that despite all the nudging of its Pakistani and Chinese backers, it has no governance agenda. The foot soldiers of the Taliban are different from the ones who were paraded around the world for almost a decade in the name of diplomacy.
Continuing instability in Afghanistan is a recipe for regional disaster. As a responsible regional stakeholder, India has to step up to the plate. Hosting the regional security dialogue is a welcome move. Even though it is unlikely to yield any immediate results, it will allow India to shape the strategic conversation in the region and underline its priorities. The Afghanistan challenge is a long-term one and it will require sustained leadership as well as strategic patience.
Harsh V Pant is director, Studies, and head, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF
The views expressed are personal