The Delhi declaration and its challenges
India hosted the third Regional Security Dialogue (RSD) on Afghanistan on November 10, with the participation of national security advisers (NSAs) of seven other nations — the five Central Asian states, Russia and Iran. The joint statement is a motherhood and apple-pie reiteration of regional concerns and priorities with regard to the Taliban, and the manner in which it has seized power in Kabul.
The Delhi declaration is a pithy summary that harmonises the divergent views and the security concerns of eight nations apropos of the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This declaratory consensus is commendable, though how this will impact or improve the regional security environment outcome remains opaque.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s dialogue, it was indicated that India would flag five areas of common security concern — terrorism within Afghanistan and across its borders; radicalisation and extremism; cross-border movements by refugees; drug production and trafficking; and the danger posed by vast amounts of weapons and military gear left behind in Afghanistan by American troops. However, given the fact that the Delhi declaration does not mention tangible outcomes, one presumes that actual policies to be implemented by individual states on these issues may have been kept under wraps.
That the emphasis for each nation is divergent is reflected in the fact that Moscow chose to issue its own version of the joint statement. Among the major regional states, neither Pakistan nor China joined the Delhi deliberations. Pakistan rejected the invitation describing India as a “spoiler” — a description that many nations have, far more accurately, accorded to Rawalpindi and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for orchestrating the current turmoil in Afghanistan. Beijing conveyed its inability to join the Delhi dialogue, couching this as a scheduling constraint, but in a gesture of keeping the window ajar, it added that China is “open to maintaining contacts with India on Afghanistan through bilateral or multilateral channels”.
However, the superficial nature of this cordiality was evident in China’s decision to participate in the Troika-plus meeting of the US, Russia, China and the Taliban under Pakistan’s aegis on November 11 — just a day after the Delhi dialogue. Beijing was represented by China’s Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong, and, in what is a pointed rebuff to India, the Chinese foreign office added, “China supports Pakistan in hosting this extended meeting of the China-US-Russia consultation mechanism and supports all international efforts conducive to promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan and building consensus among all parties.”
Geography and politics have not been favourable for India in dealing with the Afghan conundrum since the Taliban seized power on August 15. After the US withdrawal, the new cluster that has emerged as being more relevant in relation to Kabul includes Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia in varying degrees and form.
Pakistan was not a part of the two earlier dialogues in this format that were hosted by Iran in September 2018 and December 2019 respectively, while India was part of both the dialogues along with Afghanistan, China and Russia. It is understood that Rawalpindi had urged Iran not to include India in the 2019 dialogue, and when Tehran did not agree to this untenable demand, Pakistan opted for the path of petulance and stayed away.
However, it is a reflection of shifting regional geopolitics that in October, two other Afghan-related meetings were convened — one in Russia and the other in Iran — and India was excluded by Tehran, ostensibly due to Delhi’s ties with Israel and the US. Russia is the only country that participated in both the Delhi dialogue and the Troika-plus meeting being held in Pakistan.
How does the internal situation in Afghanistan impact the individual security concerns of regional states? While the Taliban remains engaged in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan, the fact that when in power, it had allowed jihadi terror groups to operate from Afghan soil has been at the core of global concern. India in December 1999 (the IC-814 hijack), and the US in September 2001 (9/11 attacks) were differently scarred by this Taliban orientation, and hence the emphasis in the Delhi declaration that “Afghanistan’s territory should not be used for sheltering, training, planning or financing any terrorist acts.”
In an ironic twist of events, if the Delhi dialogue brought eight nations together in voicing their concerns about terrorism, the Taliban itself has been targeted by an even more virulent and bloodthirsty terror group — the Islamic State (Khorasan) in recent weeks. The probability that this jihadi fervour will catalyse the increasingly disaffected and unemployed younger Afghan demography, and spill outwards beyond Afghanistan’s borders, cannot be ruled out.
The most critical challenge for Afghanistan is the visible inability of the Taliban to provide effective governance and manage the stark humanitarian crisis. Food and medical aid are urgently required and, even as regional dialogues continue, the most vulnerable Afghan citizens are reeling in deprivation.
Notwithstanding all the political dissonances within the region, Delhi could offer to immediately reach food and medical aid to Iran for transit to Afghanistan and place the onus on the Troika-plus to enable this initiative. The scale of the refugee crisis may be gauged from the estimate that almost 5,000 Afghan refugees are crossing into Iran daily, which is already hosting 3.6 million Afghans.
Earnest declarations devoid of tangible deeds will lead to an arid cul-de-sac, and add to the suffering that the Afghan winter will bring to the country’s desperate citizens.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal