Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2021-03-26 11:18:57 Published on Mar 26, 2021
Long sidelined by Islamabad, Moscow, and Beijing, New Delhi is finally taking a seat at the table.
India Joins the Afghan Peace Negotiations

This month, the Biden administration presented its plan for the future of Afghanistan. The strategy includes both the possibility of a power-sharing government between Kabul’s elected representatives and the Taliban and a recognition of the important role that regional countries should play after a withdrawal of U.S. foreign forces. In a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed several steps, including a United Nations-level meeting with the foreign ministers of China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States to develop a “unified approach” to peace.

This formal inclusion of India in the peace deliberations, which until now had seen New Delhi participating only along the margins despite its strong interests in Afghanistan and its growing partnership with the country, may alter the calculus of other regional players as well as the Taliban and the Afghan government.

According to some reports, Russian interlocutors had been wary of including India, likely because of its warming ties with Beijing and Islamabad. Pakistan has, of course, been consistent in pushing back against any Indian involvement in Afghanistan due to fears of encirclement by a strong India. China’s relationship with India, meanwhile, has seen a dramatic downturn.

India, for its part, has been playing the long game when it comes to the peace process. It is eager to have a say but has been biding its time so long as other participants were aligned against it. Slowly but surely, New Delhi signaled it was ready to join and take a larger role.

In November 2018, when Russia held talks with the Taliban, members of the Afghan High Peace Council, and other regional powers, India chose to send a nonofficial delegation of two diplomats to Moscow. In September 2020, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar joined the inaugural session of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, addressing the gathering via video and encouraging any peace process to be controlled by the Afghan people.

For Afghanistan, India’s entry into the talks should be a net positive if the endgame is to see a secure, stable, and economically dynamic country. Traditionally, the two nations have maintained strong bilateral ties, with New Delhi often focusing on carrying out developmental projects based on the Afghan government’s requests. The demand-driven strategy has helped India generate a considerable amount of goodwill for itself while providing Afghanistan needed assistance in important sectors, such as education, health, irrigation, power generation, transport, rural development, and critical infrastructure building.

For Afghanistan, India’s entry into the talks should be a net positive if the endgame is to see a secure, stable, and economically dynamic country.

In February, Afghanistan also received 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from India, the first shot to arrive in the country. Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a virtual summit in the same month, also signed an agreement for the construction of the Shahtoot Dam near Kabul. The dam is expected to provide safe drinking water, water for irrigation, and electricity to its nearby areas. While India’s developmental cooperation has been its strongest soft-power asset in Afghanistan, it has also helped develop New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Washington, which has been appreciative of India’s work in the country.

On India’s side though, joining the peace process in a serious way will necessitate a change in its calculations. In the 1990s and the 2000s, New Delhi was adamantly opposed to deals with the Taliban or recognizing it in any way. In recent years, there has been an evolution in Indian thinking, with New Delhi signaling it is no longer averse to engaging on more substantive matters with the militant group, even as it continues to support the democratically elected government in its reconciliation efforts. If India joins in U.S. President Joe Biden’s peace efforts now, it will have to make its Taliban outreach much more robust and nudge the various Afghan political factions toward a potential compromise on a power-sharing arrangement. Recognizing India’s central role in the regional matrix, the Taliban has also signaled that it remains willing to work with India.

And indeed, that shift may challenge the consensus among China, Russia, and the United States on what a constructive framework for peace in Afghanistan should look like: the withdrawal of foreign forces, preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven, ending violence, and launching an intra-Afghan dialogue to discuss political arrangements for the future. India, meanwhile, has been wary of declarations that leave out Pakistan as a root cause of the continuing problem in Afghanistan.

While Washington has periodically applied pressure on Islamabad to do more to root out terrorism at home, others have been hesitant to touch the issue at all. Yet India is right that until Pakistan stops providing safe havens to senior Taliban leaders, their families, and the Haqqani network, Afghanistan can never be a stable, peaceful nation. With little appetite outside of India for tackling the problem though, it remains to be seen how it and China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States will actually work together. As for New Delhi, its consistent advocacy of Afghan interests is likely to continue even as it is now formally part of a peace process that has so far delivered more process and little peace.

This commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Kriti M. Shah

Kriti M. Shah

Kriti M. Shah was Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. Her research primarily focusses on Afghanistan and Pakistan where she studies their ...

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