India has historic role in Moscow format on Afghanistan

(Taliban heads for peace talks)

Many a slip between the cup and the lip may be possible when it comes to the Afghan peacemaking, but with the caveat added, prospects for the second Moscow conference on Afghanistan slated for coming Friday have significantly improved with the expected participation by officials of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC), a government body responsible for reconciliation efforts with the militants, and a five-member Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban’s political council in Qatar attending the event.

This is a signal diplomatic victory for Russia. One may say that an Afghan ‘Astana Process’ (similar to the one on Syria) is taking off.

The Kabul government has done some tight rope walking, given the immense US pressure on it to dissociate from the Moscow event. Afghanistan will now be formally represented by the HPC instead of the foreign ministry. The ‘formula’ is a ‘win-win’ – Kabul has acceded to Moscow’s request without annoying the Americans.

But this is just as well because the foreign ministry in Kabul is virtually defunct and the Ashraf Ghani government has become all but relevant. And it also accommodates the Taliban’s steadfast refusal to sit at a table with the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul.

Among the regional states, Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have apparently confirmed their participation. Delhi seems to be agonizing over a decision. It has hitherto maintained that it will attend only if Afghanistan takes part. The big question is whether Delhi will now take a pragmatic decision, since the HPC is after all a government body.

The decision to sit across a table facing the Taliban representatives may cause some heartburn for the hardliners in the Indian establishment, but then, this is how all insurgencies end.

Of course, for a variety of reasons, it will be extremely short sighted on the part of the Modi government to boycott the Moscow event. One, a truly regional process involving all the major protagonists is taking shape, finally, in the search for an Afghan settlement. India’s interests lie in partaking of it.

Two, the Moscow format is in friendly and trusted hands, because Russia is a close friend and strategic partner and it will never be party to anything that hurts India’s core interests. Moscow’s approach to the fight against terrorism is similar to Delhi’s – unwavering, principled, uncompromising. Indeed, in the joint statement issued after the recent Modi-Putin summit in Delhi, India specifically voiced its support for the Moscow format on Afghanistan.

(India-Russia annual summit, New Delhi, October 2018)

Three, the forthcoming conference provides a useful occasion for India to interact with the Taliban who are definitely going to be in the power structure in some form or the other in a near future in Afghanistan. Early birds catch the worm, as they say.

Four, it is in India’s interests to contribute to any regional consensus regarding Afghanistan. By now, it is abundantly clear that the US says nice things about India’s role in Afghanistan but does nothing to bring India to the high table.

Five, the Moscow format provides a unique opportunity for India to harmonise with Pakistan and China. Quite obviously, the Moscow format is at its core SCO+2 (Iran and Turkmenistan).

Finally, this pivotal moment is somewhat like the last train leaving the station. It is better to be on board than left stranded on the platform with nowhere to go.

Importantly, the decision-makers in Delhi must be able to anticipate the outcome of the Moscow conference. In a nutshell, an intra-Afghan dialogue is commencing with the regional states acting as facilitators.

In the final analysis, this process is only going to supplement whatever efforts are under way by the Americans to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. Clearly, it isn’t the Russian intention to undercut the peace talks.

Having said that, the HPC is a composite body representing the plural Afghan society and the Americans can never hope to bring about an intra-Afghan dialogue, having been an interventionist power since 2001.

The bottom line is that India has always believed in the raison d’etre of an intra-Afghan dialogue as the pathway leading to a settlement. Any settlement that is imposed on the Afghans by external parties will be unworkable. Therefore, as a stakeholder in the stability, unity and independence of Afghanistan, India must whole-heartedly welcome the dialogue commencing at the Moscow conference.