ndia’s External Affairs Minister Jaishanker was in Iran, apparently searching for space for India in the peace process in Afghanistan. Well it’s the magnanimity of Iranian leadership to meet India’s Foreign Minister, as New Delhi is in the list of non-friends if not enemy of Iran, the reason being, India voting against Iran in the United Nations. India’s desperation over the developments in Afghanistan is evident because knowing the facts as it stands.
Why was Iran India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishanker’s destination and not Moscow or Riyadh or UAE? Well, India has lost Moscow’s cover, since it stopped buying defense equipment from Russia and has preferred western nations. India has also distanced itself from Moscow since it abandoned the socialist path and framed anti-working-class laws and a capitalist agenda. Notwithstanding the facts, the fact remains that India wants to take Iran to protect its interests in Afghanistan and also play some role in its peace process there. How far Iran will serve India’s wishful interest in Afghanistan remains to be seen none the less India’s External Affairs Minister had gone to Tehran to break the ice, searching for space in the Afghan peace process.
The US’s exit from Afghanistan has brought instability in the entire region and the geopolitical situation in the region is in flux. The military vacuum created by the US retreat has moved regional powers to move into Afghanistan. The idea of a regional solution to Afghanistan has always made a political appeal, but the divergent regional strategic vision has limited the peace prospects in Afghanistan.
Even as a sustainable regional consensus remains elusive, Russia, Pakistan and China have formed a troika to deal with Afghanistan, and this has made us go to Iran, searching for space in the peace process in Afghanistan.
Who are the regional powers?
Pakistan – The first and foremost regional actor in Afghanistan is Pakistan. It was a frontline state for the US from 1979 to 1990 and helped it build the military machine to oust the Soviet invaders. It was at the behest of the US. After the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan in 1994, Pakistan played a big role in placing the Taliban on the hot seat of power in Kabul. 1994-2001, Taliban rule in Afghanistan, saw Afghanistan becoming the haven of Anti – American forces, leading to an attack on Twin Tower in New York on September 11, 2001. This triggered a direct invasion of the US into Afghanistan. The US was successful in ousting the Taliban and physically supported an Afghan regime in Kabul for the next twenty years. However, having failed to bring stability to Afghanistan, the US brought peace with the Taliban and made an exit from Afghanistan. This has made Pakistan once again relevant in the Afghan peace process.
Iran – Iran is another neighbor that has close involvement with Afghanistan. This is because of twin reasons; one Persian being the court language and well understood and spoken in Afghanistan and second, a large Shia population living in Northern provinces of Afghanistan. Iran has been traditionally protecting the interests of its population from time immemorial and most of the ruling elite in Afghanistan are of the Shia sect of Islam. Iran can’t ignore the historical role that it has played in political stability in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan – Uzbekistan – Turkmenistan etc. – These central Asian republics are sharing borders with Afghanistan. They too have their ethnic population residing in Afghanistan. These multiethnic groups that have a support base in central Asian republics have a decisive role in the future political settlement in Afghanistan. As such Tajikstan – Uzbekistan – Turkmenistan has a vested interest in the negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan.
Russia – Even though Russia is an extra-regional power, it playing a huge role since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. After the 1990s, Russia due to its Anti – US stand, has been on the Taliban side to out the US military occupation of Afghanistan. It is well known that Russia has been providing military assistance to the Taliban to sustain its anti-US military campaign. So, Russia has a huge interest in shaping the peace process in Afghanistan.
China – China has emerged as a new player in the peace process in Afghanistan. It wants to enter into the power vacuum left by the US and wants to play a decisive role in bringing stability in Afghanistan. China shares a border with Afghanistan and there are unconfirmed sources that say that China has been training the Taliban, providing arms and ammunition to fight the American forces. China is willing to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan. Just like Myanmar, it is ready to protect the Taliban regime against any western sanctions. China is aware of its role as a regional player and its main interest in Afghanistan is to make its belt and road policy run into central Asian republics. It wants China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to be extended beyond Pakistan and through Afghanistan enter into the central Asian Republics. Besides, China is keen on mining activity, that’s in abundance in Afghanistan and remains unexplored. China offers an alternative to the Western model of governance and that’s seen by Taliban as a great ideological victory. Taliban are quite receptive to the Chinese investments in Afghanistan may bring an all-around development in their country. So, China has a huge stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan.
India– All these factors have been increasingly pushing India into a geopolitical tight spot in Afghanistan. This is because the era of prolonged peace in Afghanistan secured by the US military presence has come to an end. It means new constraints on India’s ability to operate inside Afghanistan. First, India’s lack of direct physical access to Afghanistan and that underlines the importance of India having effective regional partners for playing peacemakers.
Who could be India’s regional partners? Pakistan, India and China is ruled out because the current political dispensation in Delhi holds them as enemies of India. New Delhi is thus intensifying its engagement with Iran. In fact, India had made great preparation to hold Afghanistan through Iran, committing to build Chabahar port. However, India voted against Iran at the United Nations giving weightage to the US over Iran. Now, it remains to be seen how much weightage Iran gives to India to meddle into Afghanistan.
India has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan after 9/11, even constructing a new Parliament building in Kabul. India also built dams, roads, schools, universities, hospitals, and sports stadiums in different parts of the country. This means India has to gate crash into Afghanistan somehow. The current leadership in Delhi likes to enter Afghanistan through Iran. But this is subjected to numerous ifs and buts.
So will India lose all its investments that run into billions of rupees into Afghanistan? Certainly not! India has a history of engaging the Taliban. Indian officials made their first direct contact with the Taliban in 2013 when they issued a visa to senior Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef for a conference in Delhi. It was reported that the Taliban leader Mullah Baradar was in contact with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was pushing Russia, Iran and India to start a dialogue with the Taliban. Taliban group was aware that India was providing military support to the Ghani regime, and it had warned Delhi to remain impartial if it wants to play any future in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership had made it clear that they would not interfere in India’s interests. Further in 2018, some senior Taliban leaders met with Indian representatives in Moscow. Indian officials and Taliban leaders held a meeting in Doha in June 2021.
As such, the US has changed its stance towards the Taliban making peace with them. In fact, the US has told India to rethink its stand on the Taliban if it wants to protect its interest in Afghanistan.
As a result, India has to evolve its own policy towards Afghanistan and based on Pakistan and China’s move in the troubled region. India has to acknowledge that it cannot match the reach and depth of these two countries that have land boundaries connecting Afghanistan. The good thing is, the Taliban has signaled that it will not be a proxy for anyone else and will pursue its independent policies. This gives India the opportunity to deal exclusively with the Taliban. This is a big assurance on which India can build its future relationship with the Taliban.
There is no denying the fact that the Taliban remains a major force to reckon with in Afghanistan. There cannot be any peace in Afghanistan without the Taliban playing a central role in the Afghan peace process. At the same time, Taliban cannot rule the whole of Afghanistan without accommodating the interests of other groups in that country. If India has to protect its investments in Afghanistan, it has to directly deal with the Taliban. India has to remain active and patient watching the evolving situation in Afghanistan. There may be many opportunities for India that may bacon it from the front door in the Afghan peace process and this need not be through Iran.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at email@example.com