It is not only the Taliban and its Pakistani sponsors who are exulting in America’s strategic defeat in Afghanistan. China and Russia are doing so too, putting salt on America’s raw wounds. In the process, they are taking positions on the Taliban — and Afghanistan’s future — which are at variance but, as yet, not completely opposed to those of America and its western allies.
These differences emerged starkly at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on Afghanistan, chaired by India, on August 30. And they may put India on the spot. Will India seek to navigate through the potential international diplomatic quagmire on Afghanistan? This, even while it would, hopefully, prudently and pragmatically move ahead in a country vital to its national interest.
Afghanistan is now an important test for Indian diplomacy. It would require deftness to reconcile India’s concerns amidst the diplomatic tug of war that will, in all likelihood, ensue between major powers and the regional states on Afghanistan.
The Resolution 2593
India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, who held talks with Slovenia’s President and the Foreign Minister in Ljubljana on Thursday, is doubtlessly aware of the global diplomatic minefield. He is there at the invitation of the Slovenes to attend an informal meeting of European Union (EU) foreign ministers.
There is no doubt that the EU foreign ministers will take their cue from Resolution 2593, which emerged from the UNSC meeting of August 30. The Resolution, proposed by France, was supported by thirteen members, including India; China and Russia abstained. It contained all the elements on Afghanistan that the US and its NATO allies are currently supporting. It calls for:
An inclusive government.
The Taliban to show respect for human rights, including the rights of women and minorities.
The preservation of the gains of the last twenty years in adherence to the rule of law.
Unhindered access to and within Afghanistan for United Nations personnel who would be involved in humanitarian assistance activities.
The Taliban to honour their commitment of August 27 to allow all Afghans who wish to leave the country to do so by any surface route or by air.
The Taliban to ensure that Afghan territory is not used by anyone, including those who are designated as terrorists under relevant UNSC resolutions and mechanisms, for fomenting terror or indulging in terrorist activities.
China & Russia’s Dual Concerns
China and Russia disassociated themselves from this resolution because they do not wish to tie the Taliban down on government formation and the systems of laws that the Afghan polity wishes to follow. Russia had difficulties in Afghans leaving the country at will, for that would lead to brain drain.
At the same time, they did not go against the Resolution because they, too, want the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil to be used by international terrorist organisations. While China and Russia have no interest in preserving the “gains of the past twenty years”, they do not want the Taliban to go back to the excesses and medieval practices they pursued in the 1990s.
Significantly, in their statements after the adoption of the Resolution, China and Russia condemned America for a hasty and disorderly withdrawal. Significantly, Russia criticised the freezing of Afghanistan’s funds held by Western countries. Implicitly twisting the knife in the American wound, China said that this was a time for “reflection and correction”. China also referred to the criminal activity of US troops in Afghanistan and criticised the US for shifting the blame to Afghanistan’s neighbours for its own failures.
India Should Tread Cautiously
The Taliban is expected to announce its government soon. It is speculated that it would partly follow the Iranian model. Their leader Haibatullah Akhundzada would be declared the Supreme Leader. The day-to-day administration would be under a President but it is unlikely that the Taliban would accept elections. In their view, elections do not have a place in the Islamic system of governance. China will not have any issues with such a view.
Two distinct international camps are emerging on Afghanistan. One would be led by the US and the other by China and Russia. The US and its allies will mount pressure on the Taliban by stopping financial flows, delaying diplomatic recognition and orchestrating international opprobrium till their demands are met. On the other hand, China and Russia will seek to sustain a Taliban government unless it implements all the offensive governance principles it pursued in the 1990s. Pakistan will be integral to the Russia-China camp. The critical question is, how far will China go in financially assisting a Taliban regime?
It is good that India has now engaged the Taliban. This engagement should be actively pursued so that India’s red lines, especially on terrorism, can be reiterated. It would also be preferable for the Modi government not to get associated with either of the emerging camps and pursue a demonstrably independent policy.
Quixotic policies would be futile and contrary to Indian interests. Realism has to be the guide.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)