There is something odd about the revelation regarding an international conference on Afghanistan in the second week of November that India plans to host. An unconventional route is being taken, with priority on optics. The conference date remains indeterminate and participation uncertain. Key participants reportedly include the country’s two irredentist neighbours with whom India’s ties remain frozen in cold peace. For the first time, India’s National Security Council is wading into regional diplomacy.
The compass that the Indian organiser is holding and his final destination through the uncertain voyage ahead remains unclear. Indeed, is this conference going to be about Afghanistan at all or about a reset of relations with China and Pakistan? Nor is there any clarity yet whether Taliban officials would be invited, although sans the Taliban, the event risks becoming something of a “Hamlet without the prince”.
That brings us to the big question: Is the Indian ship changing course? The answer is yes and no. All signs point towards a major calibration of the foreign-policy compass in recent weeks since the tumultuous events in Kabul two months ago culminated in the formation of an interim government by the Taliban. To connect the incipient signs so far, as regards the way forward in Afghanistan, India has opted to align with the Anglo-American camp in the international line-up arrayed against the Eurasian axis of Russia, China and Iran.
While the US has an attitude of “You’re either with us, or against us”, vis-a-vis the Taliban, Russia, China, Iran and other neighbouring states give primacy to stability and security of Afghanistan and the region and would prefer to constructively engage with the present authorities in Kabul to ensure that they fulfil their promises and earn their international legitimacy. Being a discontented party, unsurprisingly, India would have more in common with the revisionist powers — the US and the UK.
In reality, all protagonists, of course, know that while the signpost is marking Afghanistan, it is the journey ahead that matters, being an epochal one that would transform the geopolitics of the region. Thus, Delhi has moved up to the centrestage of the Quad. In turn, Washington accepts that the Quad ought to be “inclusive”. Global Britain is knocking at the door.
On its part, Delhi has displayed its comfort level in no unmistaken terms with the AUKUS. Broadly, the historical Western experience of the EU and NATO moving in tandem — each with an independent identity notionally but with a shared purposive geopolitical objective to weaken a common enemy — is being replicated with Asian characteristics. A dual containment strategy is unfolding against China and Russia. All this entails India shedding its “Chanakyan” ambivalence. Thus, its short-lived dalliance with Iran is losing its gravitas and India has swung to the other extreme to identify with a new quadrilateral platform in West Asia, with Israel, UAE and the US.
Therefore, when it comes to Afghanistan, it doesn’t really matter anymore whether Russia accommodates India in the “Moscow format” or the privileged grouping known as the “Troika Plus” (comprising US, China and Pakistan). Delhi shrugs its shoulders as its “time-tested” friend, Moscow, bemoans the Quad and AUKUS as deliberate attempts “to undermine the existing mechanisms of interstate interaction, with narrow-format exclusive groups and Cold War- and containment policy-style military blocs… (that) contribute to the destabilisation of the situation in Asia.”
This astonishing zigzagging in India’s regional policy takes the breath away. Perhaps, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar needs to write another book to admit that, verbiage apart, Indian foreign policies are variations on the fundamental theme of countering the rise of China. In the near term, though, this wild swing of the pendulum is going to be keenly felt in the situation surrounding Afghanistan. India lives in its region and the Quad and AUKUS are of no help when it comes to Afghanistan. Pakistan and China are riding high in the Hindu Kush; Moscow and Beijing have erected a Maginot Line in Central Asia which Washington is having a hard time in breaching; Delhi’s much-touted “influence” in Kabul has turned out to be delusional. Its own capacity to shape future events is virtually nil. These are the hard realities.
Meanwhile, another crucial vector has appeared — the impact of the ascendance of political Islam in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This affects India’s internal dynamics on the security front and also the election cycle looming ahead.
Enter Pakistan. Suffice to say, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf faces a Hobson’s choice. He’s damned if he accepts Ajit Doval’s invite and goes to India at a time when Kashmiris reject the abrogation of J&K’s special status and when Delhi has not even cared to hide its toxic hostility towards Pakistan. And, equally, Yusuf’s damned if he turns down what the international community would only perceive as an Indian overture to turn a new leaf with its difficult neighbour.
It must be National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s brainwave to invite his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf to the conference where Delhi hopes to create an equivalent of the vajrayudha of the ancient Vedas which would allow India — like it allowed Indra, the ancient deity in Hinduism — to reclaim its rightful place in the Afghan pantheon of gods and demi-gods. Now, make no mistake, there is a divinity in all this as India is fighting Islamic terrorism also to save dharma and the universe.
It makes eminent sense that Doval will be chairing the conference. For Doval, the stunning setback in Afghanistan ought to be temporary. And he harbours no illusions, having lived in the real world with life red in tooth and claw. Certainly, he doesn’t have the luxury of intellectualising and writing a book. This is a battle that must be won — either outright or by denying the fruits of victory to the opponent.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 20, 2021 under the title ‘The foreign policy reset’. The writer is a former diplomat who worked on the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan desk in the Ministry of External Affairs