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EFSAS Commentary

Countering terror and humanitarian aid figured prominently in the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan


The Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan that was hosted by the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval on 10 November was a continuation of an initiative that began in 2018 when Iran held the first meeting under this format with the participation of five countries, Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Russia. The second meeting took place in 2019, when Iran also invited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. India’s turn to host the dialogue in 2000 was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the event was postponed to this year. Unlike several of the other multilateral initiatives on Afghanistan that have been taking place with the involvement of mandarins and Special Representatives, the meetings in Iran and in New Delhi related specifically to security and thereby differed from the other foreign policy dialogues. In addition to India, the NSAs or Secretaries of Security Councils of 7 countries that neighbour Afghanistan – Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – got together to review the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, the need for a legitimate government there, and the urgency of a response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the country. Ajit Doval, the Indian NSA, shared that it was Russia that had first came up with the idea of India hosting a meet on Afghanistan.

While several of the challenges being faced by regional countries as fallout of the withdrawal of the United States (US)-led coalition from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the country are common or shared, each country that participated in the Delhi Dialogue had its own individual set of concerns and interests to boot. India, for example, has traditionally enjoyed close and friendly ties with the people of Afghanistan, and the meeting was an important step for underlining its role in regional efforts for peace and security in Afghanistan and also its commitment to the Afghan people in addressing the humanitarian challenges faced by them. Prior to the meet, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said in a statement that the meeting would address “the relevant security challenges and support the people of Afghanistan in promoting peace, security and stability”. For the Central Asian participants and Russia, religious extremism and the demonstrative effect of the Taliban takeover were as much of concern as the export of Pakistan-backed terrorism from Afghan soil was for India. The meeting reflected the desire to seek solutions for these and other challenges within the regional framework.
The opening statements delivered by participants at the Delhi Dialogue shed light on the positions held by their countries on the present situation in Afghanistan. Opening the meeting Doval said, “It is a privilege for India to host this dialogue today. We have been keenly watching the developments in Afghanistan. These have important implications not only for the people of Afghanistan but also for its neighbours and the region. This is the time for close consultations amongst us, greater cooperation and coordination among the regional countries”. He expressed optimism that the talks “will contribute to help the people of Afghanistan and enhance our collective security”.
Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, lauded India’s role in Afghanistan and stressed that given the present situation in Afghanistan it was imperative for regional countries to work together to find solutions. He said, “India has played a great role in Afghanistan…Today Afghanistan is facing terrorism, poverty and misery, unfortunately. Basically, Afghanistan is only facing crisis and there is also the crisis of migration and refugees. The solution comes only with the formation of an inclusive government and participation of all ethnic groups and therefore we hope we will be able to determine who will be the force” and what mechanisms should be worked out. 

Nikolai P. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that the Regional Security Dialogue format will help in the “restoration of peace” in Afghanistan by taking practical steps to arrest the threats that emanate from within the territory of the country. Adding that such dialogues were a way to “long-lasting peace” in the war-ravaged country, he urged that the developing situation in Afghanistan be accorded priority at the “highest level”.

Asserting that the situation in Afghanistan had become “complicated” since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Karim Massimov, the Chairman of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan said that “There are many obstacles to form an effective government system (in Kabul), terrorist organizations are intensifying their activities. We are deeply concerned; we are strongly concerned with the operations of the Central Asian fighters. Social and economic situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and the country is facing a humanitarian crisis”. Massimov called on the international community to step up their actions to help manage the humanitarian catastrophe. The other participants also highlighted the need for regional countries to initiate collective efforts to address the lack of political stability in Afghanistan, to cope with threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking emanating from the country, and to arrest the infringement of the liberties of the Afghan people.

That there was broad consensus on views at the meeting was evident from the fact that the participants could agree upon and issue a joint statement, the Delhi Declaration, which reiterated support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan, and stressed on ridding Afghanistan of terrorism as well as ensuring unimpeded humanitarian assistance to the country. The statement informed that “The sides paid special attention to the current political situation in Afghanistan and threats arising from terrorism, radicalization and drug trafficking as well as the need for humanitarian assistance”. It emphasized that Afghanistan’s territory should not be used for “sheltering, training, planning or financing” any terrorist act. It also called for “ensuring that fundamental rights of women, children and minority communities in Afghanistan are not violated”, and stressed the need for “an open and truly inclusive government in Afghanistan”. The Declaration elaborated that “Inclusion of all sections of the society in the administrative and political structure is imperative for the successful national reconciliation process in the country”.

The Taliban, which was not invited to the Delhi meeting since none of the participating countries had yet recognized it as the legitimate government in Kabul, welcomed the agreements reached at the Delhi Dialogue. Its spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the media that “If they (NSAs) have said that they will work for the people of Afghanistan for the reconstruction, peace and stability of the country… that is our objective. The people of Afghanistan want peace and stability because they have suffered a lot in the last few years. Right now, we want the economic projects in the country to be completed and new projects to start. We also want job opportunities for our people. So we agree with what has been said. Any move that contributes to the peace and stability of the country, provides job opportunities to the people, and helps eradicate poverty in the country – at a time when 80 per cent of the people here are currently living below the poverty line – we support it”. On the observations on terrorism in the Delhi Declaration, Shaheen said, “Yes, that is our commitment. We agreed in the Doha Agreement that we will not allow any individual, entity or group to use the soil of Afghanistan against another country. The Americans agreed to withdraw their troops. This is all a part of our agreement. All of our senior leadership abides by that commitment”. Another Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid reiterated what Shaheen said, adding that “Though we are not present in this conference, we firmly believe that this conference is in the better interest of Afghanistan as the entire region is considerate of the current Afghan situation”.

Two important regional countries, Pakistan and China, which had been invited to the Delhi Dialogue, did not attend. Pakistan has reclaimed influence in Kabul since the capitulation of the Western-backed government in August, and the Taliban is hoping to attract investment from China to help rebuild an economy that has imploded following the withdrawal of western aid. A spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters that “China is not able to attend” the India-hosted meeting “due to scheduling reasons”. On the other hand, Pakistan’s special envoy on Afghanistan Mohammad Sadiq Khan will instead be hosting a meeting of the “Troika Plus” in Islamabad on 11 November. Officials of India’s MEA were quoted in the media as having termed Pakistan’s refusal to attend the Delhi meeting as “unfortunate, but not surprising”, adding that it “reflects its mindset of viewing Afghanistan as its protectorate”. Some of the participants at the Delhi Dialogue were also reportedly critical of regional countries that chose to be swayed by bilateral considerations while opting out of meetings of the important Regional Security Dialogue format.

India’s MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, meanwhile, said that “Pakistan was invited, they did not come. It shows their attitude over the Afghanistan issue if they did not come to such important meetings”. When asked about India’s humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, Bagchi drew attention to “lack of unimpeded access”. This is significant because India’s proposal for transporting 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat and medicines to Afghanistan via Pakistan has long been pending with the Pakistani government. Bagchi added that “India’s support to Afghanistan has been there for many years. The situation on the ground is very difficult. We are holding meetings to look at how the humanitarian situation can be addressed”.

For India, the fact that the Taliban leadership, including the Haqqani network, that took power in Kabul was supported and sheltered by Pakistan as its terrorist proxy over the past three decades is a matter of serious concern. Over the past two decades India has been the region’s largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan. Its status as a reliable and generous development partner and a strong promoter of the democratically elected government in Afghanistan had earned it tremendous goodwill among the Afghans. It now finds its relations with Afghanistan in suspended animation. The Delhi meeting underscored India’s attempts to protect its strategic interests in Afghanistan despite the hostile milieu there, and to pitch for India’s continuing role in regional security.
India’s security concerns in Afghanistan are justified not only because of unpleasant past experiences with Afghan mercenaries in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), but also due to how things are stacked up presently. Pakistan has been under the radar of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for the past few years, and it has realized that the cost of any major terrorist action against India that is launched from Pakistani territory could be very high. With the terrorist Taliban at the helm in Kabul, Pakistan would be eyeing the country as being ripe with opportunity for it to again resume full scale operation of its terrorist assets. From India’s perspective, the possibility of Afghan territory now being used by Pakistan for training terrorist groups and launching terror attacks against India is real. The implications of this are serious as use of Afghan territory would give a degree of deniability to Pakistan when confronted by the international community as well as its watchdogs such as FATF. Hosting and participating in meetings of the Regional Security Dialogue and sending out the correct forceful messages to the Taliban through the weight of such a grouping could encourage the terrorist group to have a rethink about allowing Pakistan to fire from Afghan shoulders.
While political and security issues pertaining to Afghanistan have today assumed great importance, as was evident at the Delhi Dialogue, with winter fast approaching the immediate need of the hour may be to focus on the difficulties being faced by the people of Afghanistan and to prioritize getting humanitarian aid to them as that too is critical for ensuring security and stability.