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What does India want to achieve through Afghanistan talks?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
November 10, 2021

India fears that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would benefit Pakistan. The government is trying to protect its strategic interests.

Senior security officials from India, Russia, Iran and the five Central Asian countries meeting in New Delhi
The meeting was attended by representatives from India, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and UzbekistanImage: Ministry of External Affairs/AP/picture alliance

India on Wednesday hosted senior diplomats and security officials from Afghanistan's neighbors, with the notable exceptions of China and Pakistan, to discuss how to deal with the Taliban.

The Delhi Regional Security Dialogue for Afghanistan was attended by representatives from India, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Afghan representatives were not invited. Officials from Pakistan and China declined to attend.

"Through the meeting, India is trying to assert its importance as well as coordinate its Afghanistan policy with important regional countries," Gulshan Sachdeva, professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told DW.

Forging a common regional front

The meeting comes less than three months after the exit of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan and the seizure of power by the Taliban.

A joint statement released after the meeting said the eight participating nations discussed threats arising from terrorism, radicalization and drug trafficking, as well as the need for humanitarian assistance. No details were provided.

"We all have been keenly watching the developments in that country. These have important implications not only for the people of Afghanistan, but also for its neighbors and the region," said India's national security adviser, Ajit Doval.

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The top security officials were expected to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday.

Observers in India say New Delhi was keen to discuss issues related to terrorism, including ways to make sure that Afghanistan wouldn't become a safe haven for terror outfits under Taliban rule, as well as such problems as mass migration, drug production and trafficking, among other issues.

"National interests obviously are being prioritized. Since this is a meeting of security heads, the idea is to evolve a shared consensus on issues that pose challenges for each country," a top security official told DW.

Veena Sikri, professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia university and a former diplomat, said: "India will try to forge a common front with the participating countries in the summit, especially on issues of terrorism, radicalization and cross-border trade."

Growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

Over the past few months, Afghanistan has also been dealing with a severe economic crisis that has left millions without work and facing acute hunger.

About 8.7 million people are "one step away from starvation," the World Food Program in Afghanistan reported in October.

The economic turmoil and human suffering risk turning into a humanitarian catastrophe, which could fuel a major migration crisis, observers have warned.

"As a country with historically close and friendly ties with the people of Afghanistan, India is concerned with the growing humanitarian crisis and would use this platform to seek a coordinated response so that humanitarian assistance providers are accorded unimpeded access," former diplomat Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa told DW.

"This is therefore a timely initiative, indicative of our legitimate interest in Afghanistan," she added.

India trying to protect its strategic interests

India spent billions of dollars on infrastructure and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan after the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. New Delhi built schools and hospitals, trained Afghan officers in its military academies and offered other technical assistance.

The country also assisted in the construction of the Afghan parliament building in Kabul and a dam that generates electricity and irrigates fields. New Delhi was the region's largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan, pumping in about $3 billion (€2.6 billion) into the war-ravaged country.

But India has seen its influence evaporate with the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani's government and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August.

New Delhi has had no diplomatic presence in Kabul since evacuating staff ahead of the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan, although India's government held its first official meeting with a Taliban representative in Qatar on August 31.

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Over the past couple of months, New Delhi has been trying to protect its strategic interests in Afghanistan.

"India is seeking to place itself in the center of the ongoing debate over peace and stability in Afghanistan. This is supposed to be an India-led initiative to script rules about the red lines the international community must adhere to while engaging with the Taliban," Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, a foreign policy expert and professor at the Kautilya School of Public Policy, told DW.

Pakistan, China stay away

With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has reclaimed influence in Kabul.

India's leaders fear that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would benefit Pakistan and feed Islamist militancy in the region, with spillover effects on the disputed region of Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

Pakistan and China stayed away from Wednesday's meeting in New Delhi. While Beijing claimed a schedule clash, Pakistan boycotted the conference, with National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf accusing India last week of being a "spoiler" in the region.

The nonparticipation of China and Pakistan showed a clear division on what nations expect from the Taliban-led regime, D'Souza said.

"While Pakistan and China can choose to ignore the plight of Afghan civilians, including women and minority groups, in their bid to do business with the Taliban, the rest of the world cannot afford to do so," she said. "India needs to build a regional alliance to prevent a humanitarian disaster, economic collapse, refugees, rise of narcotrade and terrorism emanating from that country," she added.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11