In a bid to reassert its influence in Afghanistan, protect precious physical and policy assets, and build on its popularity among the people of the embattled country, India will host a meeting of the national security advisors (NSAs) of ‘regional’ neighbours of Afghanistan — that Pakistan has refused to attend and China is not expected to, citing ‘scheduling issues’.
The high point of the November 10 meeting — that was to be held earlier but was called off because of the Covid-19 outbreak — is that NSAs of all central Asian countries (not just those that have a physical border with Afghanistan), Russia, and Iran will be present, isolating those actors who consider themselves powerful in the region but have opted to be absent from the consultation. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have confirmed they will attend. All these countries have important stakes in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan’s place in the region is dictated a lot by geography,” said veteran Afghanistan watcher and Indian businessman in Kabul, Sumir Bhasin, adding, “History tells us that regimes can succeed there only if the neighbourhood wills they should”.
In that context, it is a coup of sorts for India to get the NSAs of almost all the important neighbours of Afghanistan, not just contiguous ones: even though some of them have cold-shouldered New Delhi in the recent past.
India was not invited by Iran for a similar consultation earlier this year on the grounds that it was not a ‘contiguous’ neighbour.
The problems before New Delhi are many: while New Delhi has held off recognising the Taliban regime in Kabul, after the exit of the US, it has engaged with the group on the back channel and had its first formal meeting with an organisation it considers unlawful in August, citing the fate of Indians in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as the proximate reason. However, Indian Ambassador in Kabul, Deepak Mittal “raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner”, said the Ministry of External Affairs.
On October 30, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi flagged the same concern. After a meeting with Italian PM Mario Draghi on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty meeting in Rome, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said while briefing that “the PM said any form of intimidation or threat that would emerge out of Afghanistan is something that the international community would have to watch out very carefully for”.
“With Taliban fighters becoming legit, and newer radical groups rising to take their place in battle, the spill-over of armed radicalism to India cannot be ruled out,” said a retired Army officer, explaining India’s central concern.
The NSA meet will focus on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2593, which emphasises no spill-over of radicalisation and terror from Afghanistan and was passed under India’s presidency of UNSC.
India has invested more than $3 billion in development work in Afghanistan and has built close ties with the US-backed Kabul government. It has stakes in Chabahar Port and the International North-South Transport Corridor. Obviously, New Delhi will find it hard to shift gears overnight. But it is seeking out friends to help it write itself a role in a script that is a complex one.
Indian NSA Ajit Doval will preside over the meeting that will be day-long, followed by dinner that he will host for the participants. Bilateral meetings of the Indian NSA with his counterparts are also scheduled. Besides, all visiting NSAs will call on the PM.
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