India is among six nations participating in a conference on Afghanistan’s future in Moscow on Wednesday, two months after Russia hosted a similar conference with only China and Pakistan. After India and particularly Afghanistan objected to being cut out of the discussion, Moscow agreed to expand its ambit, announcing a six-nation conference of Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.
“We discussed in detail the promotion of the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said after meeting with Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani last week, announcing the meet. “We have a shared understanding of the need to step up the relevant efforts (for a settlement in Afghanistan),” he added.
New Delhi marginalised
Sources confirmed to The Hindu that the issue of exclusion was raised by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar during his talks with the Russian delegation at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in early December last year.
Mr. Lavrov’s announcement also followed a visit by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to Moscow for strategic and counter-terrorism talks on January 31, where he is understood to have raised the issue as well.
“India has always believed in close and constructive cooperation for peace, stability, security and development in Afghanistan. To this end we actively participate in several bilateral and multilateral consultations,” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, explaining the Indian decision to join the consultations despite not being included in the earlier round on December 27. Experts say that the invitation may not however, smooth over serious differences between New Delhi and Moscow over the past few months on their moves in the region.
To begin with, India is increasingly uncomfortable with Russia’s overtures to Pakistan on defence issues. Significantly, Russia did not join the U.S., U.K. and France in sponsoring a resolution against Jaish chief Masood Azhar at the U.N. sanctions committee last month, a resolution which China then put a hold on.
Russia has been seen as favouring a softer line on the Taliban as a counter to the spread of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan; Russia and China have also been coordinating closely to demand the delisting of senior Taliban leaders designated as terrorists by the U.N. sanctions committee.
“Clearly there are different lobbies at work within Moscow when it comes to dealing with terror in the region,” explained ORF Vice President Nandan Unnikrishnan. “The overriding concern for Moscow now is to manage the situation where the U.S. is trying to disengage from Afghanistan, and stop extremist forces from taking advantage of the vaccum.”
India will be represented by Director (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran) Gopal Baglay, while Pakistan will be represented by Mansoor Ali Khan, Director (Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey), at the one-day conclave which would be led by Russian President Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov; a forum that could see Russia take centre-stage on Afghan issues, decades after the Soviets pulled out from Kabul.