India is keen to ensure that all competing groups have a stake in power in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal. Without this, the country may descend into civil war and destabilise all of Central Asia and large parts of the Indian sub-continent as well, giving the Pakistani deep state a handle to step up violence in Kashmir.
In their first meeting since India evacuated its consulate in Kandahar following an escalation of violence in the troubled South Asian country, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Haneef Atmar discussed the situation in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31 this year.
“Began my Dushanbe visit by meeting with Afghan FM @MHaneefAtmar. Appreciate his update on recent developments. Looking forward to the meeting of the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan tomorrow,” Jaishankar tweeted on Tuesday.
The bilateral meeting came on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers conference and the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
“The world, region and the Afghan people all want the same end state: An independent, neutral, unified, peaceful, democratic and prosperous nation… The future of Afghanistan cannot be its past. A whole new generation has different expectations. We should not let them down,” Jaishankar said in a series of tweets, adding: “The world is against the seizure of power by violence and force. It will not legitimise such actions… An acceptable compromise that reflects the Doha process (talks in Qatar), Moscow Format (led by Russia) and Istanbul Process (an initiative of Turkey and Afghanistan) is essential.”
A statement issued by the Afghan foreign minister’s office said Atmar brought up the escalation of attacks by the Taliban, which is being aided by foreign fighters from regional and international terrorist organisations. “Overcoming this common threat was of vital importance to regional security,” the statement quoted Atmar as saying.
Reiterating the importance of ending the violence and bloodshed in Afghanistan, India assured Kabul of “continued cooperation in strengthening regional and global consensus to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan,” the statement added.
India has a massive stake in Afghanistan. Over the past two decades it has provided development assistance and has invested more than $15 billion in the war-torn country. It has large and small developmental projects in every one of Afghanistan’s 34 projects, of which the biggest is the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, formerly Salma Dam, a hydroelectric and irrigation dam project located on the Hari River in Chishti Sharif District of Herat Province in western Afghanistan. Then, India has provided finance and support to set up medical centres and other humanitarian projects in other provinces.
Addressing the contact group of foreign ministers in the presence of the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers, Jaishankar advised the Taliban, without explicitly naming it, to come to a compromise based on the Doha process, Istanbul process and Moscow format for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. He added that it was essential to ensure that the region is not wracked by terrorism, extremism and separatism as a result of a meltdown inside Afghanistan.
There is a strategic angle to India’s concern. According to Indian officials, there is concern in the corridors of power in New Delhi of the Pakistan-backed Taliban emerging as the dominant force in Kabul.
“This is a group that is immune to democratic values, human rights, gender equality and all the values that are cherished globally. There is every chance of Afghanistan spiralling into a civil war and becoming a base for international non-state actors each following their narrow agendas,” a senior government official said.
There are also fears that the Pakistani deep state could divert foreign fighters on its payroll, currently fighting in Afghanistan, to Kashmir and the rest of India. If, as is being feared in some circles, China steps into the vacuum created by the US withdrawal, then the emerging China-Pakistan-Taliban axis could become a nightmare for Indian diplomats and security officials.
There are minorities like Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, some Sikhs, a small population of Buddhists and even some Hindus living in Afghanistan. The best case scenario for India would be a balance between all the competing groups. Pakistan, too, would be part of this balance. “This will be the best guarantor or security in Central Asia and South Asia,” a senior government official said.
In order to ensure that all the good work of the last two decades and the goodwill it enjoys among the Afghan people doesn’t go waste, the Indian government has to find some way of maintaining a working relationship with the Taliban, which could emerge as the dominant force across most parts of Afghanistan, a retired diplomat said.
Though India has denied as “completely false” reports of Jaishankar meeting Taliban representatives in Qatar last month, “it wouldn’t be a bad idea if some back channels of communications remain open… to cover any eventuality”, said the retired diplomat.