India has consistently looked to have a say in any settlement in Afghanistan but its ability to shape any outcome remains limited.
India’s participation in the Russian-led talks on Afghanistan has been seen as a sharp departure from its previous policy. Isn’t New Delhi’s willingness to be seated around the table with the Taliban a significant development? Beyond the optics, however, India’s presence in the conference hardly marks a break from its past approach. If anything, it underscores the challenges that India faces in remaining relevant to any endgame in Afghanistan.
New Delhi has long maintained that it supports a negotiated peace settlement, insofar as the process is led and owned by the elected government of Afghanistan. India has refrained from any direct contact with the Taliban, despite overtures from the latter, and has preferred to take its cues from the Afghan government.
On this occasion, too, New Delhi has coordinated its participation in the Moscow meeting with Kabul. Since the latter decided to send members of the high peace council — a quasi-official body — India too sent a non-official delegation of two highly regarded retired diplomats who have served as envoys in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
India’s participation in the talks also needs to be seen against a wider backdrop. Moscow’s desire to convene this meeting fits well with the two main imperatives of recent Russian foreign policy: ensuring a secure strategic periphery and playing a more active, global role.
After years of looking askance at the Taliban, the Russians now regard a negotiated settlement with them as the key to a stable Afghanistan. This turn in Russian policy is spurred by the concern that owing to their involvement in the Syrian war, the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates might target Russia’s underbelly in Central Asia.
In this context, Moscow sees a conflict-ridden Afghanistan as a haven for the IS. That said the Russians also seem to be talking up the threat from the IS in order to pull their central Asian neighbours into a closer security relationship.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to tie itself in knots over Afghanistan. President Trump evidently regards the war as a pointless drain on American resources. Although his initial instinct was to pull out altogether, he allowed himself to be persuaded by his military advisors to stay put and not set any timeline for an American withdrawal. However, it was evident to all concerned that the Taliban could not be defeated in any meaningful sense.
At best, they hoped to convince the Taliban that it could not win either. But the limits of even such a circumscribed strategy have become apparent. After avoiding direct engagement with the Taliban, the Trump administration has reached out to them through their office in Qatar. In doing so, however, it apparently kept the Afghan president initially out of the loop.
More importantly, the United States’ wider regional policies promise to undercut its efforts to nudge the Taliban to negotiate. The Trump administration has taken a tough line on Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban and has cut off financial assistance in order to bring Islamabad to heel. There is little evidence so far to suggest that this is working. Given Pakistan’s growing reliance on China and the latter’s desire for a settlement in Afghanistan, it is likely that Islamabad will manage to stave off the pressure from Washington.
The Trump administration is simultaneously on a collision course with another country capable of shaping developments in Afghanistan: Iran. By walking out of the nuclear accord with Iran and slapping back stiff sanctions, the United States has left no incentive for Tehran to act as a moderating influence on the Taliban. Indeed, if there is any point of convergence of interests of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and the Taliban it is the vacation of American military presence from Afghanistan.
India has consistently believed that a peace process should not undermine the elected representatives of the people and unduly empower the insurgents. But its ability to shape any outcome remains limited. Indeed, the history of Indian policy towards Afghanistan is a useful reminder of these limits.
In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was poised to pull out its troops from Afghanistan, New Delhi was deeply concerned that Pakistan, supported by the United States, would push for the ascent to power of its favourite Afghan mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — a man whom the Indian government regarded as a dangerous fundamentalist. Rajiv Gandhi told the American ambassador that India could “live with any kind of government in Kabul that is not run by extreme Islamic fundamentalists.” But the Reagan administration and Pakistan were determined not to accord India any say in the endgame in Afghanistan.
Rajiv Gandhi made the same point to the Soviets. He told Mikhail Gorbachev that “if Afghanistan becomes a fundamentalist country … this will create problems for us.”
But the Soviet leader was unwilling to heed India’s requests to go slow on the planned pull out of the Red Army. As he told the then Afghan president, Najibullah, “the Indians are concerned that a normalisation of the situation in Afghanistan will result in Pakistan directing its subversive activities against India … But this position takes only India’s interests into account 100 per cent while the interests of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union are a mere 20 per cent.” The great power equation is almost the opposite now, but there is no reason to believe that any of them will be particularly solicitous of India’s interests.
In these circumstances, it makes sense for India to go along with the Moscow process. To be sure, the prospects of the Russian-led effort are not particularly bright. The United States has enough leverage over Kabul to stymie any process not to its liking. Yet by getting a foot in the door, we at least have a realistic understanding of where things are headed. More importantly, it might help us check a closer alignment of Russia’s stance with that of Pakistan. Avoiding further erosion of our position in Afghanistan should be India’s immediate policy objective.
Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. Views expressed are personal.