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NSA meet is a chance for Delhi to show Taliban victory doesn’t mean India’s defeat

Pakistan NSA Moeed Yusuf won’t attend the Regional Security Dialogue in Delhi. He’s missing a major opportunity for peace.

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An unusually interesting event is in the offing. The National Security Advisors’ meet is to be held on 10 November, and it’s been confirmed that Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics will attend. This format called the ‘Regional Security Dialogue’ has had two meetings in Iran earlier, in 2018 and 2019, which China attended, but Pakistan was not invited to. This time, invitations were extended to Pakistan as well, but Pakistani NSA Moeed Yusuf has refused to attend, noting that “a spoiler can not try to be a peacemaker”. To most listeners the world over, that would have been viewed as a reference to Pakistan rather than anyone else.

RSD and all those conferences 

Admittedly, the Regional Security Dialogue (RSD) is not exactly unique. There are bilateral, trilaterals and multilaterals galore, all concentrated more now between Afghanistan’s neighbours. India can justly regard itself as a neighbour, given its legal and Parliament-mandated claim on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. That didn’t wash, however, when a foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Tehran among Afghanistan’s declared neighbours in October where Russia was present, or in a Pakistani-inspired ‘neighbours meeting’ a month earlier, where Russia was not. Apparently, Islamabad is not too happy with Moscow’s studied reluctance to recognise the new Taliban regime.

Then there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which held a special session on Afghanistan, where India did participate. That’s a China-dominated organisation, which means that Delhi’s participation should logically elicit a similar Chinese response to the NSA event. Reports suggest that Beijing may attend virtually. Given the RSD format, it’s unclear why Pakistan was invited at all since it was not present at either of the earlier meetings. It seems Delhi was doing an outreach, and so far, it has failed. But Moeed, despite being NSA, is not the last word in the affairs of Pakistan. Far from it. For instance, his tweet warning the violent Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) protesters against crossing a red line, fell flat when the government rushed to negotiate a secret agreement with the group within days. So, keep that door open.

Previous RSDs have not had much to claim, mostly concentrating on blaming the ‘West’ and talk of ‘double standards’. They did, however, have a legitimate Afghan government representative – then NSA Hamdullah Mohib.

Interestingly, Delhi seems to have decided not to invite the representatives of the Ashraf Ghani government, though its representatives seem to still man most of the embassie. Neither is it going down the path of inviting the declared government-in-exile led by ‘President’ Amrullah Saleh, which no one really has much time for. The Taliban will not be invited given the lacunae on their status. This seems to defeat the point of the whole exercise, especially since its officials, like acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, seems to be in conversation with all major actors. However, it seems the Taliban are hopeful, with deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi, stating that the Taliban “welcome all the summits that aim to help Afghanistan”. With the country sinking daily into an economic morass, and no one willing to provide anything more than purely humanitarian aid, any help would be welcome. India could compromise by inviting some ‘unofficial’ Taliban friendlies not holding any post in the government as ‘independent observers’.

Also read: India says Pakistan not attending NSA talks on Afghanistan ‘unfortunate but not surprising’

What RSD members want

This conference is about ‘regional security’, and if previous conferences are anything to go by, discussions do not limit themselves to Afghanistan alone. In 2019, for instance, Russian NSA Nikolai Patrushev talked of Syria, as did Iran. Participants were also united on the need to eliminate terrorism. That’s a commonality even now, despite the ‘terrorists’ in power at Kabul. Technically, the agenda could include ‘all’ terrorist threats, including Pakistan-based terror groups. But since the invite was extended to Islamabad, the assumption is that the issue would not have been raised directly.

The main focus of RSD members (assuming Pakistan does not attend) will, therefore, be on how to persuade Kabul to act against the various groups sheltering in Afghanistan. Russia and the Central Asian countries will focus on the Islamic Movement of  Uzbekistan, China on the Uighur groups, while Iran will want action against anti-Shia groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K). Shias have also been targeted by Taliban themselves, but now in power, the group has no intention of allowing such incidents to tarnish its already abysmal image. More importantly, the IS-K – or rather parts of it operating in the north and east – is the Taliban’s biggest threat. If that fight gets worse, it could descend quickly into another bout of a very uncivil war, something that no neighbour wants. Then there is al-Qaeda, which shows signs of re-grouping, according to the US’s Central Intelligence Agency. Don’t dismiss that. For India, the AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent) is a serious threat. As recently as March 2021, Kabul had killed a prominent AQIS leader in Paktia. For that kind of cooperation, you need the Taliban on your side. Then there is the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which originated in the anti-Soviet jihad in Nuristan.

Cooperation on this will require the Taliban to turn against Pakistan, a less-than-likely scenario at present. However, anything can happen in future. Especially since Pakistan runs on an empty purse. The RSD will thankfully be near-unanimous on tying aid to resolution action.

Also read: Indian aid and flag needs to touch down in Afghanistan. ‘Influencers’ are already flying in

What India can give  

The obvious ‘give’ for India is diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government. There is no indication that is going to happen soon, and the Taliban are well aware of that. What they need desperately is the money to run the government. Though much has been written about massive Taliban funds –between $220 million and $1billion in illicit activity – this is far from enough to run a government, especially since expectations have risen from 2001when it was first in power. No government can control a population that is starving, no matter how bloody it gets.

The Taliban are also aware of India’s potential as a donor, given the $3billion in investments and fresh aid in February 2021 for the Shahtoot dam. Simply put, it was a signal that the Taliban were not completely anathema to Delhi. At the recent UN meet on humanitarian assistance in September 2021, India offered aid, but did not pledge funds. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar essentially asked that the airport, security and other aspects for aid delivery needed, to be attended to. But it’s not enough to just deliver aid – you have to distribute it where it’s needed most. A possibility is that RSD countries could push in aid to their immediate peripheries (with Indian aid going through Iran) thus stabilising their own borders. There is, however, another alternative that has a double whammy.

Also read: India ready to send aid to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan but how to route it is the question

What India wants 

India, like everyone else, would prefer a stable Afghanistan, impervious to the machinations of terror groups or Pakistan (which is mostly the same thing). The possibility that Afghan territory can be used for training terror groups against India is virtually certain, given that Pakistan is now under the radar of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Penalty for any action launched from Pakistani soil would be high indeed. So, the first thing India would want is a signal from the Taliban that they are truly pro-India (or pro-stability).

Expecting them to launch a campaign against the myriad terrorist entities operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border may be difficult, given paucity of funds, ability and willingness on the ground. True, Sirajuddin Haqqani is reported to have mediated a truce between Pakistan and the highly violent Tehrik-e-Taliban. But that’s Haqqani, and Pakistan. If the Taliban are to show themselves to be truly even-handed, they could start by giving the go-ahead to the Shahtoot dam project, which will provide badly needed drinking water to Kabul. Implementation will take time, but it’s still a signal of intent.

India may offer substantial aid routed through Kabul, with all its attendant difficulties. An alternative is to demand that aid, together with Covid vaccines (in addition to the 500,000 doses provided earlier) be shipped via Pakistan to the adjacent Afghan areas through the Chaman border. Pakistan should be held responsible for the safety of the convoys, while distribution can be done by UN agencies still operating in the area. But the projected aid must be impressive enough to make it difficult for Islamabad to refuse. Given persistent rumours of back-channel talks, the movement of goods to Afghanistan (and possible return trade in future) is the opening Islamabad needs to stabilise itself. Besides, an Afghan civil war will impact Pakistan first, and last.

For India, the Regional Security Dialogue should be a vehicle not just to strike a pose, but to offer actual doable methods of assistance, thereby proving once again that it is a stabilising force in Afghanistan. If previous meetings are anything to go by, expect a lot of talk on the ‘irresponsibility’ of the US and its allies, which should not bother Delhi. The main message should be that Taliban’svictory doesn’t mean India’s defeat, as Pakistan likes to project. India was never on the list for absolute sway over Kabul but has always stood by the Afghans with unconditional aid. In this, the worst of times, India should again provide generous aid, with the only conditions on Pakistan. If Islamabad has the sense to see, this is also its major opportunity. Let the aid go through, and many doors could open, not just to Delhi but to other major capitals. The alternative is chaos.

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)

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