Kept out of the loop over Afghanistan by superpowers and regional governments, India is hosting a National Security Advisors (NSA)-level conference itself. Clearly, New Delhi is trying to draw attention and prop up its crumbling relevance. Ajit Doval, India’s NSA, sent formal invitations to his counterparts in mid-October to assemble in-person in New Delhi on November 10-11 to discuss the Taliban.
A Spoiler Can’t Be a Peacemaker: Pakistan
The Narendra Modi government’s collective overture to Pakistan, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – especially Pakistan – was hailed as a masterstroke by the crony press.
The invitation to Islamabad was projected as the culmination of Doval’s backchannel talks with the Pakistani security establishment, including NSA Moeed Yusuf and Army Chief-General Qamar Bajwa. Doval was complimented for switching gears nine months after the LoC ceasefire agreement between the two militaries, which has fortunately held for so long. There were predictions that Pakistani participation would have ramifications beyond Afghanistan.
But last week, India was jolted by Yusuf’s confrontationist announcement that he won’t go to New Delhi because “a spoiler can’t be a peacemaker”. Pakistan, at least, did not make us fret. China is keeping us on tenterhooks by neither accepting nor refusing the invitation. Xi Jinping is a great exponent of the caste system in international relations and does not miss any opportunity to demonstrate his discriminatory attitude towards India and underline China’s superiority.
'The Meet Would Be Like Hamlet Without the Prince'
I think India’s biggest mistake was not to invite Taliban government representatives to its Afghanistan do. Talking about someone behind their back is plain bad manners. The dos and don’ts of civilised interaction are applicable to diplomacy too. Diplomatic immunity can’t be stretched to breaching the basic tenets of decorum and decency. Nothing prevented India from inviting the Taliban except its own cleverness, which it could now be well regretting.
Ex-ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar rightly remarked that the NSAs’ meet without Taliban participation would be like “Hamlet without the Prince”.
In the new Hinduised and Vedicised India that the Modi regime stands for, other parallels can be drawn. I daresay that in the absence of the Taliban and Pakistan – and the high probability of Chinese absence – Doval’s meeting will be like a Yagna without fire. Or an Ashwamedha without horses.
Holding its horses is the best India can do in the circumstances. It has been isolated, cornered, marginalised and elbowed out of Afghanistan after spending crores of rupees from the public exchequer. Pakistan has squarely outwitted us, not to mention betrayals by the US and Russia – and Iran’s quiet revenge for ditching it for the US. But we refuse to concede defeat and bide our time. India wants to be in the thick of things when no stakeholder wants it there.
There Were Enough Warnings
By mid-2019, pro-government commentators, such as C. Raja Mohan, were urging India to hit the snooze button on Afghanistan and Central Asia, “step up its strategic engagements beyond investments in the Chabahar port”, and explore an opening in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean regions. They could foresee the Taliban-Pakistan takeover and the Taliban ruling over Afghanistan from the India-built Parliament building in Kabul. But the government’s obsession with Afghanistan has clearly persisted and grown, as manifested in the November 10-11 event.
There is a lot of crowing and gloating over Russia’s, Iran’s and central Asian nations’ confirmation. But what’s the use of cultivating the four “stans” when accessibility to them is through Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are out of bounds for us?
Hence, their participation may be of no great significance. Moreover, China, Russia and Pakistan wield great influence over them, diminishing our prospects.
Iran is in a ‘blow hot blow cold’ mode. Tehran and New Delhi have some common interests in Afghanistan, but Iran doesn’t need India as much as the other way round. It did not invite India to the Neighbourhood Foreign Ministers’ conference on October 27 to vent its anger at External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s overeager, exultant participation in the US-Israel-UAE-India Quad from Tel Aviv. The frequent interaction Jaishankar has with US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is taking a heavy toll on India-Iran ties. Iran is now so closely aligned with China and Russia to offset the US that India shouldn’t really have any expectations.
The Real Purpose of Russia NSA's Visit
The acceptance of Doval’s invitation by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who is the right-hand man of President Vladimir Putin, is being touted as a big diplomatic victory for India. Earlier, Russia had invited India to participate in the Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan on October 21. New Delhi sent a high-level delegation that also held talks with Taliban representatives on the sidelines of the 10-nation meeting.
Russia hardly needs India as an ally in Afghanistan. Moreover, it resents India’s growing proximity to the US. But Moscow still extends courtesies to New Delhi as India buys more arms from Russia than any other country. To retain its position as India’s biggest supplier of weapons to India, Moscow advocates peace between India and China – Russia’s anti-US ally. Moscow frequently exhorts New Delhi not to get misled by Washington and mend its fences with Beijing. Moscow is conscious of India’s belief that only Russia can shield it from China if the need arises. It exploits the Modi government’s insecurity to sell more and more weapons to India.
The real purpose of Patrushev’s visit is not to clear a path for India in Afghanistan – it is to push the sale of Russia’s brand new S-500 missile defence system, which can intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles.
The sales pitch will gather momentum during the Russia-India “2+2” ministerial meet in Moscow later this month.
By the time Putin arrives in New Delhi next month for the annual summit, the sales pitch will become so shrill that we will probably succumb to it. And believe it or not, Moscow is trying to sell the S-500 to China, too.
Bipin Rawat's 2019 Statement
India’s Chief of Defence Staff, Bipin Rawat, has made several highly embarrassing public statements since his days as Army Chief, tarnishing both posts. His indiscretions – including accusing Bangladesh of pushing illegal immigrants into our northeast in collusion with Pakistan and China – strengthened the case for a gag order on the armed forces. Recently, he announced from a think tank platform that Muslims and
Buddhists have ganged up against Christians-Hindus across the world. Jaishankar had to contradict the “clash of civilisations” mumbo jumbo to save India’s face.
But Rawat may have made one sensible statement. By January 2019, the US and all other major players in Afghanistan, such as Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, were courting the Taliban and falling over each other to cultivate them. But India stubbornly refused to talk to the Taliban.
At that time, Rawat had questioned New Delhi’s long-standing policy of not engaging with the Taliban. He openly advocated talks with the group.
Speaking at a press conference as Army Chief, Rawat had said: “Do we have an interest in Afghanistan? If, yes, then we can't be out of the bandwagon... Should we in some way be a part of the talks? We should not be left out. Unless you are sitting on the high table, you will not know what is happening." His advice to jump onto the Taliban bandwagon was greeted with stunned silence, and, needless to say, ignored.
The Meet May be a Damp Squib
The ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of recent Indian history are many. But if we had opened channels of communication with the Taliban on Rawat’s advice, India would have been better-placed vis-à-vis Afghanistan today. We also ignored the persistent advice of Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, to talk directly to the Taliban. But we didn’t budge.
Wednesday’s meeting under Doval’s chairmanship might prove to be a futile exercise.
A clutch of NSAs will be dissecting and analysing the situation in Afghanistan and forecasting what lies ahead without any representatives of the Taliban or Pakistan – the nuclear power pulling the strings – in the conference hall.
I doubt whether the deliberations will have any sanctity at all. And a joint statement may not be worth the paper it is written on.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)