The Platform

Taliban fighters in Ghor province. (Twitter)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India on December 6 for the annual summit as well as the first 2+2 dialogue was as much about India and Russia’s long-standing relationship as it was about issues like Afghanistan. The joint statement that was released reflected the importance both sides attach to Afghanistan, highlighting the security situation and its implications for the region.

Afghanistan has been the focus of attention since the Taliban overran Kabul following the U.S. withdrawal. Prominent international organizations have all expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Individual countries too have taken initiatives to discuss Afghanistan. On October 27, Iran hosted a regional conference on Afghanistan which was attended by the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. India hosted the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan on November 10 which was attended by officials from Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, China and Pakistan chose not to attend. The Delhi Declaration adopted after the meeting emphasized that Afghanistan’s territory should not be used by any terrorist organization.

The TROIKA Plus comprising Pakistan, China, Russia, and the U.S. met immediately thereafter on November 11 in Islamabad to discuss Afghanistan. They also met with senior Taliban officials on the sidelines. There is also the China-Russia-Pakistan Trilateral Dialogue on Afghanistan, Turkey-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral as well as the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Dialogue, which last met in June.

The context for India

From an Indian context, few things stand out on Afghanistan. Although India is an integral part of most forums that discuss Afghanistan, it does not necessarily figure in some other important regional dialogues on Afghanistan, most led by China and Pakistan. Both China and Pakistan share a geographical boundary with Afghanistan, have supported the Taliban over the years, and with their financial support, are major stakeholders in Afghanistan. Additionally, China and Pakistan have made repeated attempts to sideline India on Afghanistan.

Importantly, among Afghans, India enjoys tremendous goodwill. The development projects funded by India and humanitarian assistance has created a lot of goodwill towards India. Also, unlike the first time when the Taliban came to power in 1996, the Taliban seem differently disposed towards India. Taliban leadership has made positive statements towards India and the group helped India evacuate its embassy personnel from Kabul.

India’s Afghan policy

India needs to leverage its goodwill in Afghanistan. It has to also find a way around the duo of Pakistan and China. India has to ally with nations that share similar concerns on Afghanistan, are geographically contiguous, and are equally impacted by the prevailing situation. Two countries that could join India in this are Russia and Iran. While Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan, Russia and India share geographical proximity through Pakistan and Central Asian countries.

Russia has been a traditional ally of India. The delivery of the S-400 air defence system despite the threat of U.S. sanctions and the 2+2 dialogue are indicators of the depth of the bilateral partnership. For Russia, Afghanistan forms the soft underbelly in its ‘traditional sphere of influence’ and therefore any adverse situation in Afghanistan is of concern. It has maintained contacts with the Taliban and is one of the few countries which continued its diplomatic presence in Kabul after the Taliban takeover.

Iran too has been a traditional ally of India. Chabahar Port is a potent example of India and Iran’s partnership. Because of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, both nations have evolved a system of barter to avoid banking sanctions. India and Iran share similar concerns over terror spillover from Afghanistan. Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, not only attended Ebrahim Raisi’s swearing-in as the next president of Iran but was also the first foreign dignitary to call and congratulate him following elections in Iran.

Being traditional allies, shared geography, and common concerns over Afghanistan, India along with Iran and Russia could therefore forge a perfect platform for exclusive talks on Afghanistan. It could also prove to be a game-changer for India not only with respect to Afghanistan, but in its image as a major power in the region. It also helps bypass attempts by China and Pakistan to isolate India from Afghanistan. For quite a while, many have said that India has punched well below its weight. Time is perhaps right for India to step up and forge its own policy on Afghanistan.

Col. Rajeev Agarwal (ret) is the Assistant Director at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He is a former Director at Military Intelligence and has served as Director in Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.