India is hosting the ‘Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan’ on Wednesday. The National Security Advisers from seven other countries will attend the day-long meeting, chaired by India’s NSA Ajit Doval.
The participants are Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani (Iran), Nikolai P Patrushev (Russia), Karim Massimov (Kazakhstan), Marat Mukanovich Imankulov (Kyrgyzstan), Nasrullo Rahmatjon Mahmudzoda (Tajikistan), Charymyrat Kakalyyevvich Amavov (Turkmenistan) and Victor Makhmudov (Uzbekistan). They will also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and have bilateral meetings on the sidelines.
The idea of such as dialogue was first mooted in 2018, when the US decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. In September that year, the first meeting of NSAs took place in Iran, with the participation of Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, China and India. At the second meeting in December 2019, again hosted by Iran, seven countries attended, with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the new participants.
Pakistan attended neither meeting. In fact, sources said Islamabad — rather Rawalpindi — had put a precondition to Tehran early that if India attended, they wouldn’t. Tehran did not yield.
This time again, Pakistan has predictably decided to skip the meeting. Last week, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf said he would not attend, and added that “a spoiler can’t be a peacemaker” — an apparent reference to India.
China attended both previous meetings in Iran, but this time it has cited “scheduling issues” to convey that it will not participate. It has told India that it is “open to maintaining contacts with India on Afghanistan through bilateral or multilateral channels”.
The meeting is being hosted by the National Security Council Secretariat, which usually operates behind the scenes and reports directly to the NSA.
Planners at the NSCS, which was keen to host the conference in 2020 but could not due to the pandemic, said there has been an “overwhelming response to India’s invitation”. “This would be the first time that all Central Asian countries, not just Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, would be participating in this format. The enthusiastic response is a manifestation of the importance attached to India’s role in regional efforts to promote peace and security in Afghanistan,” a government source said.
It is important to differentiate this process from other processes on Afghanistan — the Heart of Asia process or the Moscow format. This is not among diplomats, nor is it led by foreign ministries, but is among the heads of the security establishments in these countries. So, this is not a protocol-oriented meeting.
The “security tsars” will engage on the security concerns emanating out of Afghanistan and will discuss “practical cooperation” — from intelligence sharing to information gathering to counter-terrorism capacity-building. If a common sense of purpose can be worked out, there is a possibility of a joint communique.
What brings these countries together is their “shared concern” on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. There are mainly five sets of challenges that New Delhi would want to discuss with the other countries:
* Terrorism within Afghanistan and its spilling beyond its borders
* Radicalisation and extremism in the population in Afghanistan, and in each of these countries
* Cross-border movement of people, including ordinary Afghans and Taliban fighters
* Drug production and trafficking
* Vast amount of weapons and equipment left behind by the US and its allies in Afghanistan.
Officials said the meeting will look at evolving a “regional security architecture” to deal with these challenges, arising out of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The most important deliverable will be, if all these countries agree on the threats they all face, and on what can be done in the future. New Delhi is confident that there is unanimity, and all participating countries all are “concerned” about the difficulties faced by the people of Afghanistan. So, the aspect of delivering humanitarian aid will be on the priority agenda.
Having skipped both previous meetings because of India’s presence, Pakistan was unlikely to have attended this one, especially in light of the current state of bilateral relations.
Sources in New Delhi say the majority of the participating countries view Pakistan as “the source of the problem in Afghanistan”. In fact, they point out that it was Pakistan that had sheltered the Taliban and given them safe harbour while the war on terror was on.
New Delhi also notes a “credibility gap between Pakistan’s intentions and actions”. Officials point out that for more than a month, Pakistan has sitting on an Indian request to send 50,000 tonnes of wheat as humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the land route criss-crossing Pakistan. “If they are sincere about their concern for the people of Afghanistan, they should have allowed the food grains to reach now,” an official said.
Although China had attended both previous meetings due to its own security concerns originating from Afghanistan, its absence now sends out a signal that it doesn’t want to associate with any process led by India. Beijing has engaged with the Taliban leadership, before and after the fall of Kabul, something New Delhi has watched closely, given China’s proximity to Pakistan and potential to emerge as the Taliban’s new financiers. China’s leverage at the UN Security Council is something that the Taliban will be banking on.
As host, India chose not to invite the Taliban, since none of the participating countries have so far officially recognised the Taliban regime yet, although some including Russia and Iran have their embassies functioning.
India, which had engaged closely with the previous government led by President Ashraf Ghani, did not invite any of the leaders from the previous regime including former President Hamid Karzai and former CEO Abdullah Abdullah. New Delhi does wants to be seen as intruding in the inner politics of the Afghan society right now.
Until the fall of Kabul, India had not engaged with the Taliban through publicly-announced official channels. Now, the complexion of the Taliban cabinet — handpicked by Pakistan’s ISI and filled with Haqqani Network members — shows that India is not in the game.
This meeting could be India’s way to get a seat at the table to decide the future course of action on Afghanistan. “When you are not at the table, you are on the menu… this conference is India’s attempt to set the table, be on the table and decide the agenda,” a source said.
This is an important play since India has made it clear that it has redlines on the new Taliban dispensation— that it should not allow safe havens for terror on its soil, the administration should be inclusive and protect the rights of minorities, and women and children must be protected. But so far, the signs from the Taliban have not been encouraging. This has been the assessment shared by New Delhi with its interlocutors in the last one month or so.
So, the challenge for India will be to protect its “national interests” and “security interests”, and frame an approach to deal with what it calls an “uncertain” present and future in Afghanistan.
India feels that the high-level participation at the meeting, the source said, “reflects the widespread and growing concern of regional countries about the situation in Afghanistan and their desire to consult and coordinate with each other”. “India has an important role to play in this process”.
New Delhi’s hope is that it can emerge as the location for future dialogue processes, the grouping can be expanded in the future, including other influential players such as the US. “No doors are shut,” an official said. With China too, “there is always a next time”.
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