The story so far: Nearly three months after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval will host a meeting of NSAs in the neighbourhood (including Russia) on November 10 to discuss Afghanistan’s future and how to deal with threats to security emanating from developments there. The exercise is to reaffirm the consensus that after the pull-out of the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, solutions to the crisis in Afghanistan must come from the region itself.
Who all have been invited?
Invitations went out to Mr. Doval’s counterparts in China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Confirmations have been received from all but China and Pakistan, and while Indian officials are still hopeful of Chinese Minister for State Security Chen Wenqing or another security official attending the conference virtually, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf has said he will not attend the conference , a decision that government sources have called “unfortunate” .
What is on the agenda?
The conference, which is part of a format held in Iran in September 2018 and December 2019, is expected to seek a common understanding of how to approach the Taliban regime, especially on seeking an inclusive government in Afghanistan, with rights for women and minorities. While no country has yet recognised the acting Taliban regime headed by “Prime Minister” Hasan Akhund, all of the nations involved, including India, are engaging Taliban officials at different levels. China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia have even kept their embassies in Kabul open, while Central Asian countries have exchanged delegations for official meetings with the Taliban regime. India also hopes to focus on the triple common threats to neighbours emanating from the Taliban takeover: an uptick in terror groups operating within Afghanistan, an increase in drug-trafficking, and an inflow of refugees due to the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. India has also been involved in projects of connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia, including the Chabahar port project in Iran and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and the conference will be closely watched for any outcome on taking these projects further with the new regime in Kabul.
Finally, New Delhi wants to establish that despite its opposition to the Taliban regime supplanting the democratically elected Ashraf Ghani government, it remains an important figure in Afghanistan’s future as a development, aid and trade partner and a historical builder of connectivity infrastructure. In the past, many discussion formats on Afghanistan have not included India, ostensibly at Pakistan’s behest, like the ‘Troika Plus’ talks of China-Russia-U.S.-Pakistan held over two years, Iran’s Neighbourhood Foreign Ministers’ track on Afghanistan held on October 27 and regional meetings held by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister and NSA in the past few months. The meeting in Delhi will seek to project India as a necessary part of these dialogues. In doing so, New Delhi also re-enforces its claims as a “boundary neighbour”, given that Afghanistan abuts Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Why was Pakistan invited?
Relations between New Delhi and Islamabad have been on a downward spiral for some years now, and formal contacts have broken down after 2019 events, including the Pulwama attack, the Balakot strikes and the government’s restructuring of Jammu and Kashmir. India has long held that it is Pakistan’s “pernicious” influence and support to terror groups that are the real reason for Afghanistan’s instability and violence, and at the UNGA in September accused Pakistan of being an “arsonist disguised as a firefighter” in Afghanistan. However, Mr. Doval has reportedly been involved in back-channel talks with Pakistani security and military officials over the past two years, which led to the Line of Control ceasefire in February 2021. It was perhaps thought that a security conference of neighbours on Afghanistan should see Pakistani participation as well. The Narendra Modi government has attended several conferences on regional security and Afghanistan in particular where Pakistani officials have been present, including at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet, Moscow Format, and Central Asia-South Asia dialogue in Tashkent. Earlier this year, India sent a three-member team to the SCO-Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) meeting in Pakistan.
Rejecting the invitation, Mr. Yusuf accused India of being a “spoiler” in Afghanistan, adding that a “spoiler cannot play peacemaker”. However, it is Pakistan that appears to have played spoiler at the NSA conference, according to Indian officials, by rejecting the invitation and refusing to respond to an Indian request to allow humanitarian aid of wheat and medicines by road from Wagah to Torkham to help Afghans in dire need.