Neutrality to Assertion
Since independence, India has maintained a foreign policy of neutrality. In other words, our foreign policy has been too measured or cautious in nature. The reasons can be as diverse as abiding by the core values of peaceful co-existence to being deficient in strategic vision needed at the world stage. India’s traditional approach of ‘non-alignment’ imbibed from historical lineage may fetch appreciation in an idealistic form but at the geo-strategic arena of sparring nations, it has not yielded the desired dividends. Aspiration of a greater role for our self both at regional and international levels, has always been contested by the forces within on the pretext of timing and need as it will require review of foreign policies. Today, when change or realignment of friendships and forging new alliances is the new normal among the countries, India cannot afford to sit detached. India nurtures dreams of becoming a regional powerhouse and a potent player in the world’s politics but for that it has to shed the image of a fence sitter. An event held recently in Moscow, Afghanistan Peace Conference on 09 Nov 18, has tried to change the very perception within and to the world about India. In a welcome change, two of our former diplomats participated in the conference, though in a muted way, which had Taliban as one of the main participants. If one has to draw conclusions, this step can be termed as a path-breaker in India’s context. It can also serve as a stepping stone to recalibrate our foreign policies, especially in the region, primarily related to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Today, Afghanistan stands exactly at the same place where it was 40 years back i.e. unstable and unsafe. The power centers in Afghanistan have kept changing over the decades but the outcome has always been the same i.e. no peace in sight. However, this time, the prevailing scenario in Afghanistan wears a thick veil of gloom and pessimism. The reason, the mighty US has not been able to achieve what is pronounced in 2001 and recently in Aug17 by President Trump – defeating and creating Taliban free Afghanistan. With each day passing, the US war in Afghanistan is becoming untenable. Taliban, today, are at their strongest best since 2001, with at least 45 percent of the area of Afghanistan under its control or influence1. However, this sordid saga of despair has one ray of hope as it exists in all narratives; the efforts for peace with the Taliban are ever increasing.
The Moscow Conference
On 09 Nov 18, Russia hosted a multilateral conference with representatives of Taliban in Moscow along with officials from 11 other countries including Afghanistan, US, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan2. The main aim of the conference was to initiate a peace process involving the Taliban, Afghanistan and all important stakeholders, to end the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was represented by the delegates from a High Peace Council (HPC) appointed by the Afghan government. The conference focused on finding a peaceful solution to the issue of Afghanistan and not on holding negotiations with the Taliban. India was represented by the former envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha and former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan T C A Raghavan in a ‘non-official’ capacity3. The conduct of, first of its kind, conference with key players and regional stakeholders in itself is a success and has surely set the precedence for future peace talks. As far as India is concerned, it is definitely a both surprising and a welcome change in our foreign policy to participate in a conference where the Taliban is the key player.
Afghanistan: Eventful Year 2018
The year 2018, in a way, has been a very eventful year as far as Afghanistan political and security landscape is concerned. Firstly, the US has understandably changed its stance from defeating Taliban to negotiating with Taliban, a rather too fast and steep a decline in his relations with Pakistan-marred with allegations and counter allegations and stopping hefty billion dollars security aid to Pakistan to further wreck its economy and reputation. On the other hand, President Ghani has openly criticised Pakistan, on any given opportunity, for meddling in Afghanistan internal affairs by supporting the Taliban in all the ways possible. He, in fact, went a step ahead in February 18 by offering recognition to the Taliban as a legitimate political entity and urged them to join the Afghan government without any pre-conditions from the government4. However, China, unabashedly, has sided with Pakistan, which is also her dire necessity due to its billions of dollars invested in CPEC. And Russia, since its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, is once again finding a chance to be relevant in the region as the US exhibits signs of weariness from the longest war they are enduring.
Amidst all these developments taking place in the year 2018, India once again found itself searching for the ways to stay relevant in Afghanistan. Despite the series of events indicating a larger role for India, deafening caution and restraint had been continuing. It had been a precarious situation for India whether to hold on to its policy of neutrality or tread along with the stakeholders. India was among the countries that had refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-20015. The only contact Indian government established with the Taliban till date was during Kandahar hijack in 19996. India enjoys a strong friendship bond with the Afghanistan Government. It has supported all efforts to bring security, stability, and prosperity to Afghanistan. India’s consistent policy has been that all peace efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled7.
India Policy Change – A Welcome Step
Participation of two former diplomats was indeed a tough but a vital call by India to step forward and be the part of the international community looking for a solution for Afghanistan. It was indeed a bold step considering the excessive baggage India carries of its age old policies which make it more difficult in the back drop of people sentiments at home. The issue is not about giving legitimacy to Taliban, it is more about taking an obligatory step to claim its justified stake in Afghan peacebuilding process and more importantly denying Pakistan space and opportunity she aspires to grab. The present move clearly signals towards India’s willingness to realign regional security policies which in turn have direct consequences on its internal security. There are voices within, who have criticised India’s changed position for giving legitimacy to the same forces it once opposed. But on the other hand, it has to be understood that India’s regional security concerns stretch directly from Afghanistan to its mainland – J&K with Pakistan in the middle. A political solution to the Afghan imbroglio with Taliban joining the government will be beneficial for the security of the entire region. Taliban are the native of Afghanistan and the grass root level support they have has been one of the major reasons for their survival. Thus a political rather than a military solution looks more realistic at this stage. For India, Afghanistan holds a dual importance. Firstly, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan strengthens India’s both security & economic requirements and secondly, it helps India to leverage its position against Pakistan.
India’s policy change seems to be recalibrated in accordance with the changing regional and global power dynamic. India should reassess its strategic objectives in the region and assess it’s policies which otherwise till date more or less have been Pakistan centric. It is imperative that India seeks bigger participation in Afghanistan and not cede any space to China and Pakistan to exploit. The times are changing and in the aftermath of ISIS rise and fall; the world understands the devastating effect the Afghan imbroglio can cause to peace and security of the entire region if it is left to simmer. India should carefully craft strategies which assist to disentangle itself from its own not so relevant age-old policy web. At this stage, India needs to follow up the giant step it has just taken and reclaim its rightful place in the region. The effect of this action is likely to reap dividends in the times to come.
- Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Annual Report, October 30, 2018, p 69.
- Ayaj Gul, “Taliban, US Will Join Russia-Hosted Conference for First Time”,Nov 08, 18. https://www.voanews.com/.
- Media Brief, Ministry of External Affairs, 08 Nov 18.
- Wikipedia, “Indian Airlines Flight 814”.
- Harsh V. Pant, “The Afghanistan Conundrum: Russia’s Peace Plays and India’s Room for Maneuver”, https://thediplomat.com/,Nov 12, 2018
- Media Brief, no. 3.