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India wants to be a big player in Afghanistan, so why isn’t it giving visas to Afghans?

By getting the Russian, Iranian and five Central Asian NSAs to Delhi for a conference, India shows it can expand the Afghanistan game.

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National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is hosting a conference of Afghanistan’s neighbours on 10 November in Delhi to discuss the next steps in that conflicted country. Doval’s Russian counterpart Nikolay Patrushev is coming, as are those from Iran and all five Central Asian republics. Pakistan’s Moeed Yusuf has refused the invitation. China says it can’t come as it’s busy. The US hasn’t been invited.

This security dialogue is the third attempt by the conflicted region at finding some sort of via media on Afghanistan – the previous two conferences were held before the Covid-19 pandemic, before the world changed. Certainly, Afghanistan is in dire straits today – starvation is rife, with mothers sometimes being forced to sell their children to feed their family, human rights defenders are being killed in cold blood, while the ISIS-Khorasan terror group is attacking mosques and hospitals to inflict maximum civilian casualties.

None other than the Taliban’s top military commander, Qari Hamdullah, was killed last week in an ISIS-K attack on the Kabul military hospital, throwing up some key questions: Is the Taliban going to take this lying down? Is it going to retaliate and if it does, will that mean a repeat of the cycle of blood-letting and rank instability as it did in the late 1980s?

Moreover, India’s primary red lines are to hold terrorism at bay – to make sure that a Talibanised Afghanistan’s over-enthusiastic fighters don’t look for new spoils in neighbouring Kashmir – and to watch for the impact of the recent peace agreement between the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistan establishment brokered by none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Remember that the Haqqani Network has been accused of the 2008 terror attack in Kabul in which an Indian diplomat and defence attache was killed and that the all-powerful Sirajuddin is the interior minister of Afghanistan today.

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Unavoidable questions

This, then, is how the stage is being set as the region’s top intelligence chiefs arrive in Delhi and put on their thinking caps. On top of the agenda will be the question: Should India and the region recognise the Taliban? If so, what does this do to the ousted but powerful Afghan diaspora who had to flee when the Taliban took Kabul without firing a shot on 15 August?

But there’s another question that must be answered by India if the world as well as Afghans are to look at New Delhi as a serious player in the region. Which is, why isn’t India giving visas to Afghan nationals who have been wanting to flee the Taliban government these past three months?

The irony is that Afghans believe India to be their closest friend, which has invested in the education and training of Afghans in India (as many as 40,000 over the last 20 years) as well as another $3 billion inside their country, building both dams and schools.

But the question front and centre on the mind of every Afghan since 15 August is what and whether this friendship is really worthwhile if Afghan nationals are being refused visas, even for a short stay?

Other nations like Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Qatar, the US, Canada, Germany, the UK and other nations have welcomed Afghan refugees since 15 August. Even Pakistan, which has had a bitter relationship with Afghanistan, has accepted many thousands of Afghans streaming in. So why has India repeatedly turned them away?

It seems there are no answers to this question. An Economic Times report citing an RTI request on how many Afghan nationals were given e-visas after Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August – when stamped visas were cancelled for fear that Afghan passports would fall into Taliban or Pakistani hands – has come up short.

“Information is not available” with the foreigners’ division in the Union home ministry, an official said. Around September-end, a second official said that about 60,000 e-visa applications from Afghan nationals had been received; the official did not say how many visas were eventually given.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the answer ranges from “zero” to “very few.” Officials point out that in the absence of direct flights, Afghans can only come to India via Qatar, Iran, Uzbekistan; and that security risks outweigh the goodwill.

Is India reluctant to let Afghans in? If so, why? Everyone noticed how India went out of its way to evacuate Afghan Sikhs – with urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri even carrying the sacred ‘saropa’ on his head when the flight landed at Delhi airport – so what’s the problem with Afghan Muslims?

And if this is about religion, what does that do to India’s much-publicised self-belief that it has a unique civilisational relationship with Afghanistan that cuts across centuries, ethnic nationalisms and provinces?

Is India prepared to throw all that hard-earned goodwill away?

Certainly, the visa issue isn’t going to break the water or cause any ripples at the Doval-led dialogue that begins Wednesday. Meanwhile, it is certainly a feather in India’s cap that it has been able to marshal so many top leaders to the conference.

The fact that Russia’s NSA Patrushev is coming to town and China has turned down the invitation, shows that there is some distance between Moscow and Beijing on the Afghan question – although both have kept their embassies open in Kabul. India has done well by inviting both China and Pakistan, with which it has current standoffs, indicating that it is willing to rise above bilateral disputes for the bigger picture.

It’s a pity Pakistan NSA Moeed Yusuf won’t make it to Delhi – he has cited India’s role as a “spoiler” and its actions in Kashmir since 5 August 2019 as a reason. Leaving aside the situation on the ground in Kashmir today, perhaps Yusuf should ask himself why Pakistan is so agitated, when it has never recognised Jammu and Kashmir as part of India in the first place.

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Conference isn’t about India-Pakistan

The fact is that this Afghanistan conference is not about India-Pakistan, it’s about Afghanistan – Yusuf should know that. But, of course, we’ve seen this movie before. India has linked several regional initiatives, like linking the SAARC summit to bilateral demands that Pakistan must end terrorism first, so Yusuf can argue that Pakistan is paying India back in the same coin.

In this case, though, by getting the Russian, Iranian and Central Asian NSAs to Delhi, India has demonstrated its capacity to expand the scenario – notwithstanding the attempted veto by China and Pakistan.

Perhaps it’s time for India to throw open the door to Afghan nationals too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely remembered in Kabul as the man whose warm speech at the India-built Parliament building in December 2015 brought the house down. Perhaps the PM should go back to his own speech and ask why it is necessary – no, integral – to India’s own belief in ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family) to offer succour and hope to the very distressed Afghan community and allow them refuge inside India.

After all, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what unique relationships are about?

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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