When National Security Advisor Ajit Doval went to Moscow last month, one of the items on his agenda was to secure a place for India at the Russia-led consultations on Afghanistan. His five hour-long meeting with President Vladimir Putin’s team paid off when Moscow invited New Delhi to be a part of the six-nation meeting — along with Iran and Afghanistan — on Afghanistan on Wednesday. This was some progress from late December, when Russia hosted a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and China, and the three countries announced they would seek the lifting of UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against select Taliban commanders to bring the militant group to the talking table. But the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting is unlikely to leave New Delhi fully satisfied.
Under pressure from Kabul and New Delhi, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran have now agreed to maintain the red lines when it comes to talking with the Taliban. But Russia, China and Iran — each of them is already negotiating with the Taliban — did not commit to ending their talks with the Pakistan-backed group. India has long opposed any segmentation within the Taliban, because it considers the group a proxy of Pakistan, through which Islamabad wants to control Afghanistan. Other countries do not disagree with India’s contentions, but their concerns about the Islamic State (IS) are different from those of New Delhi.
These countries see the IS as their biggest terrorist target. A report submitted to the UNSC Sanctions Committee last month said that the IS was recruiting fighters from the restive Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Russia has made it known that it views the IS’s growing footprint in Afghanistan as a greater threat as it expands into Central Asia, which Moscow considers a part of its strategic backyard. A narrative that is gaining ground, much to India’s discomfiture, is that the global community must concede more to the Taliban so that the bigger enemy, IS can be eliminated.
Russia views the IS through the prism of its involvement in the ongoing Syrian war, where an estimated 3,000-5,000 Russian Muslims have joined the IS. Moscow fears that these IS fighters could return to setup base in Afghanistan and extend their influence over Central Asia, and eventually in Russia. For similar reasons, Iran also sees the IS as a major threat to its security, and is willing to reduce Taliban to a secondary threat. This narrative suits the interests of the Pakistani establishment. It takes the attention away from Taliban, allowing it to consolidate its military gains and find a way into the Afghan government through international pressure. Any narrative that promotes talks with the Taliban also allows Pakistan to remain relevant to the US, China and the wider international community. That is bound to weaken Indian efforts to have Pakistan seen globally as a supporter of terrorism.
There are fears that the Trump administration, which already sees the IS as a global threat, could buy into this narrative. Senior officials in his administration have served in Afghanistan and they could advocate a deal with the Taliban to bring a semblance of stability and closure to the 17-year military operation in Afghanistan. This puts New Delhi in a precarious situation as Trump has indicated a desire to reduce American troop presence overseas. He has already undone Obama’s decision and brought Central Asia, including Afghanistan, on the same desk in the White House National Security Council as India and Pakistan. An insistence from New Delhi to act against the Taliban could invoke calls from the US for India to contribute militarily to counter terrorism in Afghanistan. Despite having received a wish-list from Kabul many months ago, India has so far moved cautiously on supplying military hardware and combat platforms to Afghanistan. Top officials in New Delhi remain totally opposed to any proposal to send Indian soldiers to fight terrorists on foreign soil, which could reduce its leverage with Washington.
As a stakeholder in a peaceful Afghanistan and in keeping with its stance against terrorism, India will have to find imaginative ways to convince all geopolitical actors of the dangers of bringing back the Taliban. By creating a false choice between IS and the Taliban, the region could soon see the clock turned back to the tumultuous 1990s. New Delhi’s efforts must focus on building a regional consensus on retaining focus on the Taliban, without getting isolated in the larger global community.
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