Moscow Hosts Taliban: India Is Straddling Both US & Russia Camps on Afghanistan

While India was part of the Moscow Format talks, it’s also a member of the new Middle East Quad.

5 min read

Nearly two months after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the world is still coming to terms with the shock event. Just how tentative things are is evident from the fact that the Taliban still term their own government as “interim”. The international community has maintained a largely united posture on its demands of the Taliban, even as it tries to stabilise the situation there and stave off a humanitarian disaster. In the meantime, the big powers like the US, China and Russia continue their power games, looking beyond the immediate horizon.

Taliban representatives attended their first international conference after coming to power, in Moscow on Wednesday.

In a significant development, an Indian official delegation formally met with the official Taliban team at the sidelines of the talks, known as the Moscow Format Consultations.

Referring to the meeting, the smooth-talking Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said that “both sides considered it necessary to take into account each other’s concerns and improve diplomatic and economic relations”. He said India had expressed its willingness to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. There have been reports that India is considering a dispatch of a consignment of wheat and other supplies to Afghanistan.


A Counterweight to US Influence?

The main Moscow Format talks involving 10 countries took place on Wednesday, including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. A joint statement following the talks declared that engagement with Afghanistan “needed to take into account the new reality, that is the Taliban coming to power in the country”. It reaffirmed their commitment to “a peaceful, indivisible, independent” Afghanistan, one that would be “free of terrorism and drug-related crime and respecting the basic norms in the human rights area”.

The participants expressed concerns over the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and suggested that an international conference be convened to deal with the issue. It bluntly suggested that the main burden should be shared by countries like the US and NATO, which had conducted military operations there in the past 20 years.

Earlier this week, the United States had announced that it would not join either the “Troika Plus” China-Russia-Pakistan grouping or the Moscow Format talks because of “logistical difficulties”. More likely, Washington did not want to give greater legitimacy to the China-Russia efforts to lead the process of dealing with the Afghan situation.

The Taliban's Demand for Legitimacy

At the heart of all the current diplomacy is an effort by the Taliban to gain international legitimacy, while the international community is so far holding out on the demand, as expressed in the Moscow joint statement that the Taliban take steps “to improve governance” and “form a truly inclusive government and “practice moderate and sound internal policies” as well as “respect the rights of ethnic groups, women and children”.

The Taliban has so far been remarkably successful in welding together disparate factions and groups and presenting a united front to the world. But as they take up the burden of governance, the cracks are showing. It is not easy to forecast the direction the country will take despite the efforts of the Moscow Format countries to push them in a particular direction.

Meanwhile, there are intriguing geopolitical developments in the large Eurasian region that cannot but be related to the Afghan developments. After its departure from Afghanistan, the US tried to examine the possibility of setting up facilities in the neighbouring countries of the region to retain an “over-the-horizon” capacity to attack al-Qaeda or Islamic State terrorists. But all the countries, including India, Pakistan and the Central Asian states, refused to accommodate the Americans.

Russia publicly declared that there would be no room for US military facilities in Central Asia. Now, it is readying to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with Iran, similar to the one that the latter signed with China in March this year.

The US has not been idle. There has been some movement in the US-Iran negotiations over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) relating to the Iranian nuclear programme. Likewise, there are also signs of a shift in the American posture towards Pakistan.


The American Response

But perhaps the most interesting development has been the creation of a western Quad, comprising of the US, Israel, the UAE and India. Politically, it is clearly aimed at the consolidation of the Chinese-Russian alliance in the Eurasian heartland, which is now seeking to incorporate Iran into it. It is, in a sense, the American response to the larger fallout of its Afghan collapse.

India has good bilateral relations with all three countries, and the western Quad offers an opportunity to eventually integrate them into a single strategic framework. Whether or not that will happen is too early to say. After all, look at the eastern Quad that was once spoken off as an “Asian NATO” but has now largely become an economic cooperation arrangement.

There is another aspect that requires some attention. The US notion of Indo-Pacific does not extend beyond the west coast of India, which is the geographical limit of the US Indo-Pacific Military Command (Indo-PACCOM). India has considerable experience in dealing with the Indo-PACCOM, with whom we conduct regular military exercises. But cooperation with the CENTCOM, which looks after the area of the new western Quad, is virtually nil.

Will the new Quad succeed in enlarging the area of the Indo-US military and strategic cooperation to cover the region from Mumbai to the Suez Canal? Will it drive a further wedge in ties between India and Iran or India and Russia? This is something only the future can tell.

New Delhi has added its own colour to the developments by extending an invitation to the Pakistan National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, to participate in a conference on Afghanistan next month, to be chaired by the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval. So far, there has been no clear Pakistani response.

Just what Doval is up to here is not clear, but the success or failure of the conference depends on Islamabad’s response. The best-case scenario would be that this provides an opportunity for Pakistan and India to bury the past and undertake pragmatic cooperation in stabilising Afghanistan. This could feed into the larger Indo-Pakistan dynamic, which has shown some intriguing signs of change earlier this year.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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