On March 30, external affairs minister S Jaishankar is set to join a meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process in Dushanbe. Sometime after that, India is expected to join Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the US for a meeting to be convened by the UN to discuss a unified approach on Afghanistan.
After months of watching from the sidelines as the Trump administration recklessly pushed ahead with a deal with the Taliban, the Indian government will finally have a say in two crucial meetings being held to decide the future of Afghanistan.
On March 30, external affairs minister S Jaishankar is set to join a meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. Sometime after that, India is expected to join Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the US for a meeting to be convened by the UN to discuss a unified approach on Afghanistan.
Both meetings will be crucial opportunities for the Indian foreign policy set-up to present its expectations of the end state that the US appears intent on pushing through in Kabul in order to end its involvement in a war that has dragged on for two decades and bring all its troops home.
The meetings are also relevant because India has had virtually no say regarding the negotiations between the US and the Taliban since the signing of a so-called peace deal last year and no role in the “extended troika” meeting on Afghanistan that was convened by Russia on March 18.
As the Trump administration pushed ahead with its talks with the Taliban, India had to be content with watching from the margins while carrying on with its vast development portfolio – with pledges of $3 billion, India is the largest regional investor in Afghanistan’s future – and making repeated calls that the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, and that any solution must also address New Delhi’s security concerns.
However, even the strongest opponents of the Taliban are now veering around to the conclusion that any future dispensation that emerges in Kabul, thanks to the latest push by the Biden administration, will have to include the militant group that is viewed with deep suspicion in New Delhi because of its deep-rooted links with the military establishment in Rawalpindi.
Insiders in Kabul say US secretary of state Antony Blinken resorted to the step of writing a letter to President Ashraf Ghani last month, outlining American plans for the new push for a political settlement, after conveying messages on five separate occasions regarding the need for the government in Kabul to act with more alacrity. This included two phone calls from Blinken to Ghani in January and February, but the insiders say these contacts didn’t elicit the response desired by the Afghans.
There is also a feeling in some quarters in Kabul that New Delhi is uniquely placed, because of its influence with Ghani, to persuade the Afghan president to consider the American proposal – which includes a draft peace agreement that envisages a “transitional peace government”.
So far, Ghani has shown little inclination to accept this American proposal. Afghan foreign minister Haneef Atmar said during his visit to India this week that any interim set-up would be a departure from the Constitution. He also said Ghani is ready to hold early presidential elections if the Taliban agree that elections are the only legitimate way to transfer power.
But insiders in Kabul note that Ghani’s shrinking popularity among the public could ultimately limit his role in the process that is currently being pushed by the US, and the Indian side could nudge him to play a more proactive role in shaping the end state.
The most-tricky issues for India, however, remain forging closer links with all political players in Afghanistan and the question of opening a channel with the Taliban. The US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, argued last year that India should initiate a dialogue with the Taliban as it would help New Delhi to directly take up its terrorism-related concerns with the militant group.
Though there was a nascent debate within Indian decision-making circles some time ago on whether to open a channel with the Taliban, this was set aside at the time of the 2019 general election because of concerns about New Delhi potentially engaging the Taliban leading to questions about the lack of a similar approach with the Kashmiris.
Though the Biden administration might ultimately relent on its May 1 deadline for withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan, thereby addressing some of the immediate security concerns of New Delhi about such a drastic drawdown energising India’s adversaries in Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that India will have to make some hard choices if it wants to have a seat among the players who will shape Afghanistan’s future.