In the Afghanistan Arena, Russia Seems to be India’s Only Hope Now
India has been cornered. Aligning with Russia, though difficult, is perhaps the only way to make some headway.
On 15 August, the Taliban swept into Kabul after the Afghan president fled and the government collapsed. By now, it is clear to the world that Pakistan and China see the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban as a win for their own plans, be it for Afghanistan’s economic subjugation for the exploitation of its mineral resources and market, or for using Afghanistan as a base for promoting terror activities to invoke pressure on countries like India.
But beyond what is clear, there are several things that are still unanswered.
The recent visit of Russia's top security official, Nikolay Patrushev, for discussing concerns on drug trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism and instability in Central Asia with his Indian counterpart was significant. It was a follow-up meeting after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish a permanent bilateral channel to discuss Afghanistan.
These developments beg the question: how will India and Russia move forward with their combined efforts against terrorism, and other common issues, such as drug trafficking? Given that the two countries have followed almost completely opposite trajectories on Afghanistan in the last few decades, it’ll be interesting to see how they work together on the Afghanistan problem now. Moscow may want to take India aboard, but is it willing to offend Pakistan?
Russia Was Quick to Adapt. India Wasn’t
Both India and Russia backed the Northern Alliance (NA) at the starting of the ‘War on Terror’, while avoiding putting any troops on the ground for combat purposes. The two also remained engaged in socio-cultural and humanitarian activities in Afghanistan. However, on one hand, where New Delhi had remained completely in opposition to the prospect of engaging with the Taliban (especially through formal mechanisms), Moscow seemingly established deep ties with various Taliban factions long back, and accelerated this process in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Crimea in 2014 (when the US and the European Union sanctioned Russia).
Moreover, while New Delhi has been largely absent in the peace process mechanisms and conferences revolving around the Afghan government, the Taliban, US, Russia and Pakistan, Moscow, in the absence of the US, took the lead several times in organising peace conferences with the Taliban; it even hosted key mujahideen leaders to effectively move on from the historical differences (originating from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) in order to reform ties between Russia and the future Afghan government.
Another divergence in strategy is over the IS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan). While in Moscow’s calculations, the Taliban is seen as a stabiliser in Afghanistan and the only group that can neutralise the advances of the IS-K in the Central Asian periphery, India has long refrained from differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists, and didn’t come up with any strategy to restrict the growing presence of Islamic State sympathisers in the Kashmir region.
However, Moscow’s strategy wasn’t limited to just the Taliban — Kremlin had formulated a multifaceted strategy of engaging with multiple stakeholders and keeping the communication channels open for other players as well.
In addition to engaging diplomatically with various national players like Qatar, Pakistan, China, the US, EU, and Iran, Moscow also is said to have entered into discussions with various key Northern Alliance leaders, thus ensuring that no matter how the situation unfolds in Afghanistan and who wrests control of Kabul post-US withdrawal, Russia’s interests and assets are considered by the ruler.
India Walked Itself Out of the Afghan Situation
In contrast, the Indian case paints a dismal picture when it comes to how the situation has unfolded. While New Delhi had restricted its ties with Tehran since the US started pressuring India regarding Iran-related sanctions (thus stopping Iranian oil import), it has also had a sour relationship with Turkey in the last few years, which has increasingly supported Pakistan over issues like Kashmir. These three nations — Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan — have vital links with the Taliban leadership. They also have the religio-cultural ties necessary to wield a huge influence on the Taliban’s decision-making apparatus.
Further, in the absence of enough space for India to engage in diplomatic talks with the Taliban due to the long-standing hesitancy towards holding talks with a group established by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), New Delhi can be said to have pushed itself out from the Afghan arena.
A Symbiotic Relationship?
Russia’s antecedent, the Soviet Union, was humiliatingly forced to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in the past. But it has now forged ahead by engaging with Taliban stakeholders and playing the realpolitik in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US retreat. In contrast, New Delhi has done nothing of that sort; in this realist world, no one is a permanent friend or a permanent enemy.
In order to secure its national interests in the region, New Delhi should work alongside Russia in engaging with the Taliban. For Russia, it could prove to be a strategic edge as China along with Pakistan is largely influencing the Taliban and aims to dominate the region’s geopolitics. Russia and India have the potential to work together and keep a check on the Sino-Pakistan dominance in Afghanistan.
Pakistan Can Throw a Spanner in the Works
Considering India’s tight-lipped stance over the developments in Afghanistan, including the fall of Panjshir as the last province (conquered through Pakistani air force support), it can be said that the options for New Delhi are considerably limited. Very recently, the Indian ambassador to Qatar met the Taliban’s representative in Doha, which highlights how the ground reality in Afghanistan has forced New Delhi now to reformulate its strategy.
The issue of Afghanistan has been on agenda every time India and Russia have held meetings on ministerial levels. According to the Russian ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev, “India-Russia friendship is a much-needed and almost guaranteed partnership for world peace”.
However, there seems to be little hope of such declarations yielding any substantial outcome, as the burgeoning of Pakistan’s stature in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover has compelled Moscow to revisit strategic calculations involving Islamabad.
It is no secret that Pakistan remains an important factor in Moscow’s considerations when it comes to South Asia. This stands true due to several reasons, ranging from the Russian connectivity projects in the region to the security situation in Central Asian states in Afghanistan’s periphery, both of which might face problems in case of sour relations between Russia and Pakistan.
India-Russia Cooperation Can Become a Confidential Affair
In another dynamic, there have been calls for cooperation between India and Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) RATS (The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure). However, as China remains one of the most important elements in SCO, even reaching a conclusion to define “terrorists” will remain a point of contention as Beijing will hardly be interested in deeming any Pakistan-supported groups as “terrorists” because they indirectly help China keep a noose on New Delhi.
For now, New Delhi’s plan of action on Afghanistan doesn’t align with Russia’s in several aspects. Nevertheless, the Indian government will be hoping for a liaison with Moscow. It will help New Delhi gain some ground in the emerging situation by establishing contacts within various Taliban factions as well as Russia’s intelligence apparatus from the Central Asian periphery.
For New Delhi, Russia is perhaps the only key for the Afghanistan padlock. Moscow has received assurances from the Taliban that it would not violate the borders of Central Asian countries or harm Russia’s interests. But any assurances that come from the Taliban with respect to India are going to be much less believable — China-Russia ties will also influence Pakistan (and hence the Taliban) into taking Moscow’s concerns into consideration but not those of New Delhi. India-Russia cooperation in Afghanistan might thus take a confidential turn.
India Is in a Tight Spot
It would be too early to reach any substantial conclusion regarding India-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan. Recent developments indicate that while Russia wants India to play a crucial role in establishing regional peace and order, Moscow does not want this to happen at the cost of antagonizing Islamabad due to its leverage over the Taliban.
It is to be noted that by and large, India and Russia have similar national interests and concerns over the Taliban and any antithetical act by the Taliban against either of the countries can have an impact on the other.
With Russia’s support, India could engage with the Taliban both on formal and informal platforms. It looks inevitable that the Taliban will be at the helm of Afghanistan in the near future, and keeping itself isolated is going to cost India strategically and politically.
New Delhi should look towards establishing communication channels with various factions of the Taliban as well as other key players in the Afghanistan arena, such as China and Iran. While the Taliban won’t need to do a lot to please Moscow for recognition — even as it is still designated as a terrorist entity in Russia — it will take tectonic changes in India’s stance and policies to recognise the Taliban government.
Right now, India has been uncharacteristically silent due to the complex situation and lack of options. Perhaps it’s hoping wait and see how the Taliban government will act after coming to power.
(Divyanshu Jindal is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at O.P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Vishal Rajput is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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