Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-31

The 3rd Moscow Format meeting on Afghan settlement attended by Taliban and ten regional states, Moscow, Oct 20, 2021 

31. India plays Russian card 

The chances were slim that the Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf would accept the invitation from his counterpart Ajit Doval to a regional meet of security tsars in New Delhi to discus the situation in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. 

Nonetheless, the dismissive manner in which Yusuf spoke publicly about it is a matter of surprise. When asked about the Indian invitation, Yusuf replied in a huff, “I will not go. A spoiler cannot play the role of peacemaker.” 

Curiously, the Pak FO also conveyed scepticism earlier but diplomatically, when the spokesman said the Indian invite needed “to be viewed in the overall context of Pakistan-India relations, and the regional situation.” The FO spokesman also doubted Delhi’s intentions. 

He said, “With regard to the conference on Afghanistan, it seems India is trying to find some relevance in the context of Afghanistan. As you are aware, various other regional mechanisms and processes are in place, including the one initiated by Pakistan itself – involving the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, the first meeting was held in Islamabad in September and the second Ministerial Meeting was held in Tehran.” 

Factually, the FO spokesman is correct. India faces acute regional isolation and conceivably the policymakers felt that a conference would help navigate a pathway out of the current impasse. Isn’t that what diplomacy is about? 

As things stand, there is a likelihood of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan attending the Delhi conference. The Indian ambassador publicly stated the Indian expectation that Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev will attend the conference. For Moscow, Tashkent and Dushanbe the acceptance of the invitation is a mark of their friendly ties with India. 

What isolates India is its quasi-alliance with the US, which increasingly has a vector on Afghanistan. In the region itself, there is deep distrust about the US intentions and India’s close association with the US at foreign-minister level regarding Afghanistan is now in full public view.

However, Russia juggles many balls in the air. India is an exceptional client for Russian arms vendors. President Putin may visit India in December for the annual Russian-Indian summit, which traditionally witnesses the finalisation of some mega arms deals.

But this is anything but mercantilism. The US-India-Russia triangle is also in play. The atmosphere in the Beltway is so very friendly toward India nowadays that there is a concerted move by US lawmakers to grant waiver from CAATSA for Delhi’s defence purchases from Russia, such as the S-400 missile defence system. 

The rationale is sound: If India, a quasi ally of the US, is boosting its military capability vis-a-vis China, that works fine, and, who knows, it may even cause some friction incrementally in the Russian-Chinese equations. After all, Russia is boosting India’s capability to stand up to China. 

Interestingly, Russian side is already putting out feelers soliciting Indian interest in its newly developed S-500 missile defence system which has the capability to intercept ICBMs and hypersonic missiles. (But Russia is also open to selling the same advanced system to China!) To be sure, with such strong defence cooperation at the core of the relationship, Russia has an advantage since it is willing to transfer cutting edge military technology to India — unlike the US — be it for hypersonic missiles, nuclear submarines or the S-500 system (which the US cannot match.) 

Suffice to say, the inaugural meeting of the Russian-Indian “2+2” ministerial in Moscow later this month just weeks before Putin’s visit to Delhi promises to be eventful — as it also coincides with a similar US-Indian “2+2” ministerial in Washington.

Against such a complex backdrop, Russian-Indian cooperation on the way forward in Afghanistan more than makes up for India’s exclusion from the ministerial forum of the neighbouring countries that met in Islamabad and Tehran successively in the recent period. Fundamentally, there is no conflict of interest between India and Russia in regard of the Afghan situation. 

Now that Moscow has successfully blocked any US military presence in any form in any of the countries in Central Asia, it is in a strong position to leverage its influence with the Taliban government. On the other hand, if the Taliban government collapses or if Afghanistan slides into civil war and anarchical conditions, Russia will still be a serious player, given its tested capabilities in waging hybrid wars. 

Make no mistake that Moscow mentors Tajikistan’s political elite too. From the Indian perspective, therefore, Delhi’s most consequential partnership over the Afghan problem will only be with Russia. Put differently, Doval’s initiative to hold a regional conference will have profound implications with Patrushev attending it. 

There could be some merit, arguably, in Yusuf’s apprehensions. There are outlandish notions about the Taliban in influential quarters in India. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India (almost the same as Pakistan’s population), fantasised only yesterday about a Balakot-style Indian air strike on Taliban targets! True, the Indian elite have a jaundiced view about Taliban partly out of ignorance, partly as political expediency.

Nonetheless, Pakistan should have accepted the Indian invitation even if its belief is well-founded that Delhi has been acting as “spoiler” in Afghanistan. Pakistan should develop a sense of pragmatism that any serious player in the great game would have. Only today, Russian side disclosed that the CIA chief William Burns recently flew into Moscow secretly to meet with Patrushev. And this is at a time when storm clouds are gathering in the Black Sea and public reports are in circulation showing military trains and truck convoys moving tanks and missiles in Russia’s southwest near Ukraine. 

The terrible beauty of Doval’s initiative is that it is all about a new journey rather than about a set compass pointing toward a pre-determined destination. That makes it a journey of seamless possibilities. Pakistan would have had nothing to lose, perhaps it might have stood to gain something, somewhere along the line. Perhaps, Yusuf could have proposed a similar gathering in Islamabad. Trust Doval to have accepted his invite.