India was not invited to a Russia-led conference on Afghanistan last December, which included China and Pakistan. The three countries then agreed to start an outreach for reconciliation with the Taliban, the Pakistan-backed terror group which wants to militarily unseat the democratically-elected Afghan government. New Delhi and Kabul registered their protest with Moscow, which led to an invite to last Wednesday’s conference for the two countries, along with Iran. The outcome of the meet was, however, not to New Delhi’s liking. India and Afghanistan wanted these countries to respect the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution on terrorist groups. Russia, Iran and Pakistan agreed to respect the international red lines but refused to end the ongoing channels of talks with the Taliban.
The issue at the heart of the matter is not the Taliban, but the so-called Islamic State (IS). Moscow and Tehran see the IS in Afghanistan, which they fear will extend into the region, as a greater threat to their internal security. Russian fears are compounded by the presence of 5,000 Russian-speaking fighters in the IS, which could shift to Afghanistan as the war ends in Syria. They could then expand into the central Asian nations, a theatre Moscow considers as its strategic backyard. As a Shia republic, Iran remains firmly opposed to the IS and worries about the terror group targeting Shias in Afghanistan and then threatening Iran. Considering IS a bigger threat, these countries want to open negotiations with the Taliban, perceived by them as a lesser danger because it does not wish to expand beyond Afghanistan. The United States also seems to be buying into this narrative. This plays into Pakistan’s hands, which will again gain a position of pre-eminence for the United States, Russia and China, as it exercises all the levers of control over the Taliban. Besides opening new channels of funding and support, it would hurt long-standing Indian efforts to have Pakistan recognised globally as a state which supports terror.
The arguments are all on India’s side because the dichotomy between the Taliban and the IS in Afghanistan is a false one. The IS in Afghanistan is a motley group made of ex-Taliban, local anti-Taliban factions, renegades and criminals, which only uses the flag and symbols of the dreaded terror group. Moreover, the Taliban are no “good terrorists”. When they last occupied the seat of power in Kabul in the 1990s, the Taliban ruled brutally and provided a base to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Any negotiation which leads to the return of the Taliban disrespects the sacrifices made by Afghan soldiers and the international forces which fought and continue to fight the Taliban. New Delhi, along with Kabul, needs to remind the global community of the dangers of turning the clock back and undoing all the gains made in Afghanistan in the past 17 years. It is an uphill task, but it will have to be done.
This first appeared in print under the headline Afghan Bottomline