Media and strategic experts are agog with speculation as Russian and American intelligence top dogs visit India, almost stepping on each other’s toes as they tread the corridors of power. The visits are even more interesting given that both Russia and the US had chosen to keep India at arm’s distance during negotiations on the Afghanistan issue, and now seem to be eager to get New Delhi to come on board. Not that this was likely to be the only issue with either.
With the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting on 16-17 September, and the very first ‘in person’ Quadrilateral summit meeting in the same month, things are going to get interesting.
Afghanistan and trouble ahead
Russia’s Secretary of Security Council Nikolai Patrushev is officially here for a consultation on Afghanistan, a follow-up to a telephone call between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier. The visit with his counterpart NSA Ajit Doval is obviously an indicator that all is not entirely well with Moscow’s pro-Taliban position, which it has taken ever since the group fought off not only an ‘Islamic State’ segment in the far north, but also so badly shook up the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, so as to leave it a shell of its former self. Moscow has long accused the US of arming such elements, pointing to movement of helicopters in the border areas. In turn, the US accused Russia of ‘grossly exaggerated’ claims of Islamic State cadres, a statement that is quite at variance with its present stance on the IS as the biggest threat to itself.
Russia’s satisfaction with Taliban operations was recently apparent when Special Representative Zamir Kabulov was asked whether he feared a reincarnation of an ‘Islamic state’ in Afghanistan. He stated clearly: “I saw how the Taliban, unlike the Americans and NATO, including the fleeing Afghan government…. fought mercilessly. Representatives of the Taliban’s top leadership have repeatedly told me that they have only one thing to tell the ISIS – they will not take prisoners.” Meanwhile, President Putin has called for “legalising” political forces in Afghanistan, which is politico-speak for recognising the Taliban government.
That’s all very well, but it appears that China is now taking the driver’s seat. Not only has the Taliban announced that it is their top ally, calling on it to invest but Beijing also held the first foreign ministers’ meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours, chaired by the Pakistan foreign minister, and attended by Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Russia was not invited, even as an observer. The Joint Statement committed aid and medical supplies, while cautioning the “role of spoilers, both inside and outside the country”. Since then, China has reportedly committed $31 million in aid. Afghanistan moreover is to be tied by the leg to Pakistan, with Gwadar envisioned as the route for Afghan trade. That will inevitably be followed by Central Asian trade flowing in that direction. None of this strengthens the Russian position. Much has been said of growing Russia-Chinese cooperation, but the rapid growth of China as the prima donna in this part of the world makes Moscow that much more interested in furthering what is often called a ‘time-tested’ relationship with an entirely non-threatening India. Therefore, the expected visit of President Putin later this year. Meanwhile, Moscow wants to scout the possibility of a tentative Indian outreach to the Taliban.
The US and ‘chappals on the ground’
With CIA director William Burns, the issues discussed by India and the US are likely to be far broader, though the chaos of Kabul and possible counter-terrorism cooperation will certainly be a critical part of the agenda. While Afghanistan is now entirely ‘off the ramp’ in White House and Pentagon websites or conversations, the intel community has to keep a sharp eye on not just the ‘Islamic State’ in Afghanistan, but the Taliban as well. As CIA Chief William Burns said in a testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the ability to collect ground intelligence will be significantly impaired once US forces leave.
If the recent 29 August US drone attack on an alleged IS bomber was any indication, ground intelligence is already badly hit. That strike led to the killing of an entire family, including children, worsening anti-US sentiments. There is the possibility of an ‘off shore’ intelligence base, with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Force in the north Arabian sea. But not the best of technology can replace ‘chappals on the ground’ in terms of covert ground capabilities.
Getting into land-locked Afghanistan
India, however, is temporarily out of the picture too since it has virtually closed off all its missions. Getting back in is a problem precisely due to Washington’s inimical relationship with those who can help. Iran, for instance, is far from happy with the turn of events. Iran recently called for an ‘inclusive’ Afghanistan government, and later condemned in the strongest words, Pakistani attacks in the Panjshir resistance. Meanwhile, Iran is probably going to be part of the SCO, after a decade in the ‘waiting room’ This will draw it further into the Russian and Chinese orbit. None of this suits India, or its capability to assist Afghans or US objectives, or indeed its own.
There is India’s own $3 billion commitment, covering all 34 Afghan provinces, with a later commitment at the Geneva Donors’ conference to build the Shahtoot Dam on a tributary of the Kabul river. That, together with an additional commitment of $80 million in November 2020 for community development projects, just eight months after then US President DonaldTrump signed an agreement with the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ indicated that India had no intention of leaving just yet. Meanwhile, the building of dams on the Kabul river will be seen by Pakistan as another attempt to strangle its access to its waters. It is not. It is simply a project to get badly needed drinking water to Kabul. But Islamabad can be expected to pressure the Taliban to refuse that aid. Whether the Taliban choose to heed Pakistani pressure or opt for a vital and basic facility will be a test of a future relationship. Meanwhile, the US has to moderate its sanctions on Iran, to allow Indian access. Neither much-needed aid nor construction equipment can get in without a geographical route.
The China-US squaring off
Meanwhile, China hasn’t missed an opportunity to down the US on its ignominious Afghan exit. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian emphasised that all parties at the foreign ministers’ conference agreed that “the US and its allies are the culprits of the Afghan issue”. Beijing wants to put its ‘regional power’ stamp on the Afghan situation, no easy task at any time. If it succeeds, it will shift the balance of power in this region strongly towards itself. There is every likelihood that Washington will try to stump it in that effort. That is between them, and New Delhi can choose not to get involved in what might develop into a very ugly face-off. That, in turn, depends on whether China sees India as a valuable stabiliser in Afghanistan in its own right, or continues to see India through a Pakistani lens.
Meanwhile, our immediate objective should be to get Indian food and medical aid through Iran, into Afghanistan, not because it’s useful to Indian diplomacy, but because it’s the right thing to do at a time of tragic need. Delhi has often been accused of taking an annoying ‘high moral ground’. But it’s high time a little morality was brought back into international relations rather than grand theories of ‘self-interest’. That includes preventing a crisis of starvation in a country that has suffered more than enough. Get those trucks and ships ready. And quickly. Theorising and arguments on power and polarity can wait.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.