There’s some fast footwork apparent among international actors on Afghanistan, that involves jostling for space and status in a region where everyone is worried about a terrorism and refugee overflow as a humanitarian disaster looms. The worry is for their own territories, rather than for hapless Afghans, but it is a worry nonetheless. At the top of the heap was the meeting of the Extended Troika group, which includes Russia, China, the US and Pakistan. Following that was the so-called ‘Moscow Format’, which included, among others, the Taliban and India, with the latter officially present for the first time; thereafter a conference in Teheran scheduled for 27 October, and then the first-ever dialogue between the National Security Advisors in Delhi on Afghanistan.
Whether all this activity will amount to anything is yet to be seen, but what is clear is that this time around, India is refusing to take a back seat. There is opportunity here, but opportunity is always a fickle fairy, unless grasped and firmly by the neck.
The Extended Troika meeting
There is unusually little public information about the Extended Troika meeting, barring a statement from the Russian foreign ministry with the usual banalities. The usual extensive joint statement is missing; what’s more, the US refused to attend, citing ‘logistical difficulties’ a position the spokesman refused to budge from despite some jeering from the press. He however did say that Troika was a ‘constructive’ forum that Washington would engage in going forward. This is the second time the US has skipped the meeting. The US also cited the appointment of a new special envoy, with Zalmay Khalilzad finally being sent home. The new Afghanistan envoy, Thomas West, has formidable experience in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, was advisor to the then Vice-President Joe Biden on these issues, and also dealt with the US-India Civil Nuclear Initiative and the US response to the 2008 Mumbai attacks at the State Department; in other words as different from ‘Zal’ as can possibly be. That’s all to the good. Alongside these events, was the suspension by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) of the Russian liaison office for alleged dirty work, even as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the Washington residence of a Russian oligarch, a close buddy of President Vladimir Putin in a criminal investigation. US-Russia ties are clearly in a tailspin.
The ‘Extended’ format, originally a US invention, was envisaged as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the Afghan situation with a meeting in arch-rival Russia’s capital, and where Pakistan was an invited guest having ‘influence’ on both sides. Qatar and Turkey were guests of honour, India was not invited, since as Beijing’s mouthpiece Global Times gleefully quoting the Russian special envoy Zamir Kabulov said, Delhi had no influence. Hints of the recent meeting can only be had from tweets by Pakistan envoy Mohammad Sadiq where he notes a meeting with ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi and ‘Foreign Minister’ Amir Khan Muttaqi, rather than citing the provision title. It seems that Pakistan has already recognised the Taliban government, even as Prime Minister Imran Khan and Islamic parties issue almost daily calls for formal recognition. The lack of a joint statement from the Extended Troika indicates differing perspectives, something which can be seen in the later meeting of the ‘Moscow format’.
A collection box passed around in Moscow
The Moscow format was started in 2017, stressing on regional participation of some 10 countries including China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. India attended in 2018, sending an ‘unofficial’ team, to underline its opposition to any talks with the Taliban. This time, however, India sent a Joint Secretary, who had a one-on-one meeting with Taliban representatives, where they were assured of ‘extensive’ humanitarian assistance. What was notable was the absence of Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanikzai. But then there are a lot of top people missing from the limelight, including Mullah Baradar, and his supreme boss, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
In his opening remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov firmly stated that there was no question yet of recognition of the Taliban, noted their ‘efforts’ at stabilisation, stressed on ‘inclusivity’ (which means including Moscow-backed actors), derided US absence and made clear that the United Nations must have a central role in preventing a total slide into chaos in Afghanistan. The Joint Statement hammered out was rather a travesty. For one, despite President Putin noting that there was ‘no hurry’ to recognise the Taliban government, it noted “practical engagement … needed to take into account the new reality, that is the Taliban coming to power in the country, irrespective of the official recognition of the new Afghan government”. That’s as close to recognition as it gets. It called on the Taliban to “practice moderate and sound internal and external policies” even as news of the beheading of a young volleyball player came in, and declared themselves “pleased” at Taliban reaffirmation not to allow terrorists to operate. That’s Moscow and Central Asian states showing that they expect the Taliban to continue to act against groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. One can only assume that the Indian team got the same assurance.
China’s position was evident at the G-20 summit where it declared itself as against imposing “conditions”, and “mutual tolerance for different civilisations”(read as ‘don’t push for democracy and human rights’). According to Global Times, the Chinese side suggested four paths – people first, tackling the humanitarian crisis, and notably ‘inclusive development’, (rather than inclusive government), and international aid. Put simply, the Taliban should get its act together and everyone should pay for that transition. In sum, while Russia wants its Uzbeks and Tajik representatives in, China has no special desire for any inclusivity. What it wants is that the radicalism and violence, so inherent to the new Taliban, to not spill into its own territory. Ensuring that means offers of limited aid, and possibly more. Its base in Tajikistan, close to the Wakhan corridor that connects Afghanistan to China is, after all, not meant for admiring the admittedly stunning scenery.
The hand that feeds – aid begins to arrive
The Taliban, meanwhile, need to provide for their own constituencies and armed groups, who can drift away to other groups, or worse, turn against the Taliban.
Lavrov noted that Moscow was sending ‘another’ aid contingent (though there’s no evidence of a first tranche). The US also seems to have agreed to provide humanitarian aid, according to Taliban sources. The Turkish government announced it would send aid by land from Pakistan. China sent its first tranche last month by air via Kabul, which was accepted warmly by Khalil-ur-Rehman Haqqani, brother to Sirajuddin, and with a $5 million bounty on his head. Pakistan has sent in two tranches of aid, but these seem to have been delivered at the border only. Earlier videos had shown Pakistani flags being torn down from trucks.
Meanwhile, other groups are beginning to get active, with the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Al Khidmat Foundation already involved in providing ‘expertise’ to the ‘Afghan government’. A range of Islamic charities in the US like Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, which is linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami and violence, are just some of them. In other words, the patrons are drifting in.
And more conferences, including in India
The next conference in Iran clearly has the blessings of Beijing, which is in consultation with it on who should attend. It remains to be seen whether New Delhi will receive an invite. Since China’s Special Envoy Yue Xiaoyong has been urging everyone to open up their purses, it seems India might. After that, is India’s own NSA conference, with the same invitees, which means Pakistan’s NSA will make his first official visit. The question is who will occupy the Afghan chair. That is a sticky question. Talk of a government-in-exile in Tajikistan has remained just that – talk.
Missions everywhere continue to be manned by Ashraf Ghani government appointees and staff. India could always issue an invitation to the Taliban in the tortuous language of the Donald Trump-era Doha declaration, which referred to “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”.
Alternatively, it is not obliged to invite the Taliban at all, though that might defeat the purpose of a political foot in the door. Meanwhile, humanitarian assistance has to be generous and swift. The ‘influencers’ are already at work, and so far an Indian helping hand has been apparent in its complete absence. Fly in the food, and leave it to the Taliban for the moment. No one said there would be good options. But at least Indian aid and the flag will fly into Kabul, and not be dumped at the border.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)