Student of MA in Defence and National Security Studies from Panjab University. Areas of expertise- Defence, Strategic Issues and International Relations.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Secretariat convened a meeting to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. It was held in a rare but unsurprising format of 6+2+1 which comprised of its 6 neighboring states- China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan apart from the two world powers United States and Russia and of course, Afghanistan. United Nations later said in a press briefing “This format brought together Afghanistan and six neighboring countries plus Russia and the United States, in recognition of the importance of the region to Afghanistan’s
stability and sustainable development.” However, one country that has
considerable affinity with Afghanistan and is a significant stakeholder in the region- India was missing from this virtual meet.
This did not come as a surprise for India given that it has been excluded from several other formats that were convened to discuss the Afghanistan situation. However, the fact that this meeting took place just days after Zalmay Khalilzad spoke to External Affairs minister of India S. Jaishankar apprising him of the situation and assuring him of an aligned Afghan policy has had some unsettling effect. For now, India can do with the reason that it wasn’t invited to the meet as it does not share a physical border with Afghanistan but it’s time that India evaluates its position in the region and do something about this status quo given that it is going to be the non- permanent member of the UNSC from 2021-22 and is the second biggest player in the South Asian region.
India has still not formally recognized Taliban as a political outfit and has held the position that any peace process in Afghanistan should be ‘Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled.” This has created bottlenecks for the global community to involve India into any peace process with its rigid ideas about Afghan governance. Given the political instability due to friction between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, there were issues in the stance for an Afghan-led peace process. They seem to be arriving at an agreement now and that is a good thing. There has been no let-up in Taliban
led attacks ever since the US-Taliban deal, making the situation even more volatile. However, it will not be easy for India to directly engage with Taliban given the fact that it supported the IC-814 hijackers and India in turn, helped in the overthrow of Taliban’s rule to establish the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Hence, any involvement in Afghan peace process will require a major shift in Indian foreign policy.
India shares a natural bonhomie with Afghanistan. Since 2001, India has provided $650–750 million in humanitarian and economic aid. India’s support and collaboration extends to rebuilding of air links, power plants and investing in health and education sectors as well as helping to train Afghan civil servants, diplomats, police and army recruits. In the recent past, India has led the efforts in developing the Chabahar port that gives it access to West Asia through Afghanistan, thus bypassing Pakistan. Hence, India has lot to lose in the long run if it does carve a space for itself in the transition of peace in the war-ravaged nation.
Going with the status quo, a greater influence of Pakistan and China over
Afghanistan, both of whom are India’s arch rival is a very real possibility. United States has given much leeway to Pakistan in the past year to aid and fast track the peace negotiations. In fact, Pakistan has been credited for bringing the Taliban back to the table and with China already pretty much invested in exploration work in the country there is only a downward spiral for India if it does not change its position. However, India’s challenges are manifold when it comes to playing a constructive role in Afghanistan. Last month, there was an attack by ISKP on a Sikh gurudwara which claimed the life of Afghan Sikhs and an Indian national. Following the attack, the Indian authorities carried an overnight mission and bought back the consulate staff and stationed ITBP personnel from the Herat and Jalalabad province of Afghanistan. The reason cited for such a move was the raging Covid19 pandemic but the truth is that there was active intelligence about more such attacks on Indian embassies and consulates. Given the security threat, it becomes difficult to tread the path of peace for India which will have to share the space with Pakistan, a country that aids terrorist organizations like ISKP.
India’s policy makers must try to align their national security interests with their regional interests for better policy outcomes. With countries steering away from multilaterism and China gaining the goodwill of its neighbors by providing aid at a time of a pandemic, India will have to make active efforts to bend the scale in its favor once all of this is over. India will have to convince the global community that any lasting peace in the region will require India’s presence and support. There lies the opportunity but it might come with significant risks.