To go by the somewhat grandiloquent “Delhi Declaration” adopted after the regional summit hosted by India on Afghanistan, there is nothing much to report. Many of the points made were similar to those at the meeting of the Moscow Format on 20 October 20. In essence, these were the calls for Afghanistan to be free of terrorism, form “a truly inclusive government”, and for the international community to provide humanitarian assistance.
The exercise, steered by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, has been labelled as the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan. This featured the presence of all five Central Asian Republics, as well as Iran and Russia. But crucially, China and Pakistan declined to attend. And, even more important, the Taliban representative was not present. But that was because he had not been invited.
'Won't Call It Quits Yet': India's Real Message
The Delhi Declaration is itself interesting but fairly trite. It properly called for “a peaceful secure and stable Afghanistan” and emphasised the need to respect its sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who could be the party that could, in the present circumstances, interfere in its internal affairs.
It reiterated the Moscow Format call for an Afghanistan that is free of terrorism, but the Declaration had a lot more on terror financing, terrorist infrastructure, radicalisation, which seemed aimed more at Pakistan than Afghanistan.
Of course, there was the ritual concern for the suffering of the people of the country from terrorism, the spread of COVID-19, and the importance of assistance to stave off a humanitarian crisis.
Actually, the real significance of the Doval move has been to signal to the region and the world that notwithstanding the fiasco surrounding the collapse of the Ghani government that New Delhi had strongly backed, India was not about to abandon the Afghan game.
Further, the presence of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan indicated that New Delhi has not quite lost its mojo in the Central Asian region.
As for Iran and Russia, both are major regional powers, they have their own calculations in relation to India, which has propelled them to attend the otherwise anodyne dialogue.
BJP's Pakistan Approach is Confusing
The Great Game 3, if we may call it that, is not something that will be played out now in terms of weeks and months, but years, if not decades. What India is signalling is that it has the wherewithal and stamina to stay engaged. Afghanistan is too important for its continental aspirations to be abandoned because of some shift of political fortunes. That perspective should also extend to Pakistan, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s monochromatic approach to the country makes it difficult to decide whether there is a foreign policy on Islamabad or if it is part of the party’s domestic agenda.
It is very clear that as of now, New Delhi is marking time on recognising the Taliban government and it does not feel any special compulsion in taking a lead on the issue. The key decision on this will be taken by the US, China and the European Union. Clearly, India is waiting and watching the US moves. In turn, the US will calibrate its moves with the help of its friends and allies.
But first, the Taliban needs to sort things out since their government itself claims an interim status.
America Isn't Shy of U-Turns
Washington’s new Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Tom West, has been on the move. Earlier this week, he said in Washington that the Americans were worried about the attacks initiated by the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The US remains worried about the possibility of anarchy in the country, which could benefit actors like al Qaeda and the IS.
West will be in Pakistan on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Troika Plus (Russia, US, China and Pakistan), then visit New Delhi and go on to Moscow. His aim is to gauge the situation in the region. The US may soon agree to unblock some $9.5 billion in American banks and take other steps to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.
In essence, the Americans are readying to deal with the Taliban. This is not a moral issue. If they can work with the Saudis, they can surely deal with the new rulers of Afghanistan. This would, given the current Taliban alignments, mean a closer reliance on Pakistan. Biden may not have had that conversation with Imran Khan, but that means little. What we do not know are the conversations that are going on between the US military and its Pakistani counterparts.
The US is capable of U-turns when its national interests demand. Witness its relationship with Vietnam, a country where it suffered a humiliating military defeat. We may be witnessing something similar in Afghanistan.
New Delhi may come up with theatrical displays such as the Regional Security Dialogue that concluded on Wednesday. But the Great Game 3 will be played on the field or with realpolitik. Here, what will matter is not rhetoric and declarations, but the ability to move things on the ground.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)