Despite being a key contributor to rebuilding Afghanistan, India was elbowed out from the four-party meeting held in Beijing in July to advance the Afghan peace process. Earlier talks with the Taliban in Doha and Moscow already hinted at the sidelining of New Delhi from future peacebuilding efforts as a quadrilateral consultation group between the United States, China, Pakistan and Russia was announced without the inclusion of India. Pakistan, which stands accused by Washington of harboring terrorist groups, is now invited to play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan.
This nod toward Pakistan and the sidelining of India from the reconciliation efforts are only going to diminish the chances of a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan. This policy switch in favor of the Taliban’s main demand to include Pakistan in the negotiations can lead to a premature withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, as Islamabad can easily convince the Taliban to restore a tentative peace until the US forces leave.
Afghanistan remains the focus of India’s developmental funding, given that a fragile pro-Taliban government in Kabul supported by Pakistan means endangering India’s domestic security, specifically when it comes to Kashmir. Recent threats of attacks against India by terrorist groups indicate what may come once the US forces withdraw. Moreover, India wants to counter the growing influence of China and Pakistan across South Asia following the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in 2015, through friendly diplomatic relationships with Iran and Afghanistan. New Delhi is also expanding its infrastructural projects like the port at Chabahar to ease the transportation of goods between Iran and Afghanistan.
Culture and Commerce
After the Taliban was dethroned by US-allied forces in 2001, India directed its efforts toward strengthening Afghanistan’s economic stability and democratic institutions through commercial and cultural relations. India, the largest donor among Afghanistan’s neighbors, has provided development assistance in excess of $3 billion. It contributes to the regeneration of infrastructure, like the establishment of a direct air freight corridor, dam and road developments, and many other medium and small-scale projects spread across Afghanistan.
Around 8,000 Afghan migrants were sheltered in India in 2017. More than 26,000 Afghan students enrolled in India’s institutions between 2013 and 2018 as part of a cultural exchange program, and nearly 56,000 Afghans have visited India for medical treatment in 2017. Commercially, India’s overseas private investment outflow to Afghanistan was around $6 million over the last eight years. India’s total volume of trade with Afghanistan currently stands at $1.15 billion, out of which India exported $729 million (mainly clothing, medicine, aluminum, steel and dairy products) and imported $422 million worth of goods from Afghanistan in 2018.
In its drive to support Afghan democracy, India has provided the funds for the construction of a new parliament building in Kabul, inaugurated jointly by the heads of both countries in 2015. India’s Election Commission, which oversees the world’s largest election, also provided training for Afghanistan’s election officials back in 2012. India has expressed its opposition to deferring the presidential election scheduled for later this year, which the US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, had agreed to postpone until the reconciliation talks with the Taliban are concluded.
Besides curbing extremism and safeguarding its commercial ties, New Delhi is mainly involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan to curry diplomatic favor with Washington against Islamabad. The exclusion of India and the inclusion of its key rival in the peace talks is a setback for the United States in a sense that its regional ally that has supported US reconstruction efforts and the restoration of peace doesn’t have a place on the consultation team.
US President Donald Trump adopts a mixed approach in dealing with Pakistan. On one side, the US has allowed Pakistan into the quadrilateral group, shown an interest to mediate on Kashmir and didn’t object to Pakistan securing $6 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund. On the other side, President Trump had raised the issue of Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups finding safe havens within its borders on several occasions and has promptly tweeted after the detention of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed.
India, meanwhile, has made numerous sacrifices to align with the US by adopting decisions that went against New Delhi’s self-interest, like imposing restrictions on the import of Iranian oil despite a high domestic demand or voting in favor of Israel at the UN, which went against India’s long-standing policy of non-interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The current government in Kabul has been thawing ties with India based on its developmental approach, while the Taliban leans toward Islamabad. Against an earlier stand not to include the Taliban in the peace talks, the quadrilateral consultation group has now agreed to start intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other local stakeholders. The inclusion of the Taliban in the talks clearly indicates that any future government will be formed with the support of the armed group, which in turn has Pakistan’s support. Under such a power-sharing agreement that would allow for Pakistan’s influence, India’s commercial interests and security concerns will only be exacerbated.
The US must either exert pressure to include India in the consultation group or otherwise arrange for alternative means to safeguard India’s commercial and security concerns in the aftermath of the withdrawal of coalition forces. India, for its part, must espouse its balanced diplomacy without favoring any particular country by sacrificing its own interests. If the US agrees to include the Taliban in Afghan peace negotiations, India can then unilaterally open dialogue with the Taliban to protect its commercial and diplomatic interest if a coalition government that includes the armed group comes into the power.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.