In a rare and welcome initiative on Afghanistan, Delhi has invited the national security advisers from the region to discuss the challenges arising from the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. According to reports, India has invited the national security advisers of Afghanistan’s neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Russia — to join the consultations on regional security. Turkmenistan, which shares a part of Afghanistan’s northern borders, has a policy of strict neutrality, and does not join such diplomatic gatherings. It is not clear how many of these countries will participate in this meeting scheduled for the first half of November. There will be a big question mark on Pakistan’s participation.
While Delhi awaits formal responses to its invitation, the initiative marks an important change in India’s Afghan policy. Delhi appears ready to look beyond the narrow bilateral approach to Afghanistan and promote a cooperative regional agenda. During the last two decades — which followed the ouster of the Taliban from power by the US forces at the end of 2001 — Delhi tended to be a lone ranger in Afghanistan, focused on strengthening bilateral ties with Kabul. As the Taliban gained ground in Afghanistan by the late 2000s, thanks to sanctuary and support from Pakistan, Delhi engaged in bilateral diplomatic consultations with a range of its partners and participated in a variety of regional initiatives for peace and political reconciliation. As the crisis deepened in Afghanistan in the last few years, several countries, including China, Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkey have actively intervened in Afghan diplomacy. Over the last two decades, India’s stakes in Afghanistan have gone up. So has its weight in regional affairs. This is a good moment, then, to move from a passive stance on Afghanistan to active regional diplomacy.
The initiative also opens the door for consultation on regional security issues with Pakistan, which remains the most important external actor in Afghanistan. In the past, even when India and Pakistan were talking to each other, Islamabad refused to discuss Afghanistan with Delhi. Keeping India out of Afghanistan has been a major objective for Pakistan’s establishment. And since the 2019 constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan has made talks with India conditional on Delhi walking back. It might be hard, therefore, for Islamabad to accept India’s invitation. Yet, Pakistan’s “success” in reinstalling the Taliban in power looks difficult to sustain. Two months after taking Kabul, the Taliban is yet to gain diplomatic recognition from any country. Meanwhile, there are mounting international financial and political pressures on Islamabad to nudge the Taliban towards more reasonable policies. Delhi would hope that Islamabad takes India’s invitation in the right spirit and is amenable to a dialogue on Afghanistan and regional security without prejudice to other contentious issues in bilateral relations.