The diplomatic front

November 21, 2021

Making sense of India and Pakistan’s diplomacy on Afghanistan

The diplomatic front

After toppling the Ghani government on August 15, the Taliban might have hoped for quick recognition, regionally and worldwide, as a legitimate dispensation with de facto control over the entire country.

However, despite their best efforts and appeals made to major global powers such as the United Sates, China and Russia as well as neighbours like Pakistan and Iran; their rule still lacks de jure international recognition. Operationally, the Taliban are running Afghanistan as an ‘interim government’ since mid-August. They have recently appointed their representatives including an acting ambassador to Pakistan where government officials posit that diplomatic relations can be established with a government on the basis of its de facto control of territory. To meet the requirements of international law and stay aligned with the norms of international state system, a de jure recognition is essential.

Officials from China, Russia, India, Iran, Central Asian States and even the US have met with the representatives of the Taliban. At the regional level, the ‘neighbors of Afghanistan’ recently met at two separate venues to deliberate on some crucial issues that Afghanistan is facing. Besides the recognition issue, matters pertaining to economy and ecology were discussed at length.

Pakistan and India appear to be in a strategic competition to not only talk with the Taliban leadership but also influence its future direction, both in terms of foreign policy and economic management.

Pakistan seems to be working out a new mechanism for consultation, at the ministerial level, among Afghanistan’s neighbours on the developments in that war-ravaged country since mid-August. The consultation format includes China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. The inaugural meeting was held in Islamabad on September 8 and the second in Iran on October 27.

Noticeably, the Taliban were not invited to either of these meetings on account of lacking international recognition. Importantly, the participants of the second meeting had in their joint communique called on the “international community to remain positively engaged with Afghanistan and develop a long-term roadmap to advance the agenda of political engagement, economic integration and regional connectivity”. The countries seem keen to continue this consultation process. The next meeting is likely to take place next year in China.

On November 11, Afghanistan’s Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi arrived in Islamabad along with a delegation. Besides high-ranking Pakistani officials, Muttaqi also held meetings with diplomats from other countries.

Besides the aforesaid ministerial meetings led by Pakistan and China, another format of meetings of government officials from regional countries took place in New Delhi, India, on November 10. This meeting was called The Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan of National Security Advisors/Secretaries of Security Councils. Convened less than three months after the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the dialogue was attended by representatives from Iran India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, importantly Russia, a key actor in the set of meetings that was basically a China-Pakistan initiative.

The diplomatic front

Convened less than three months after the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue for Afghanistan was attended by representatives from Iran India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and importantly Russia.

“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 neighbours and the region,” Ajit Doval, the top security advisor of the Indian government, said.

Pakistan has reclaimed its influence in Kabul since the capitulation of the Western-backed Ghani-Abdullah regime in August. The Taliban are trying to attract Chinese investment in order to rebuild its debilitated infrastructure and economy. Both China and Pakistan stayed away from the meeting held in New Delhi.

China claimed to have a clash of schedule while Pakistan boycotted the conference. National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, did not hesitate to accuse India of being a “spoiler” in the region. India had held its first formal meeting with Taliban representatives in September in Qatar. This is a very crucial aspect of regional diplomacy on Afghanistan where India, which geographically is a non-immediate neighbour of Afghanistan, is engaging with other regional stakeholders of Central Asia along with Russia. It seems that New Delhi is confident it can keep a dialogue channel open with the Taliban. The meeting in Doha is a case in point. From a realist perspective, India would strive to counterbalance Pakistan whose say in Afghanistan has arguably increased with the change in regime. Perhaps, India is also benefitting from its close ties with the US, which did a deal with the Taliban in the first place. The US might have implicitly encouraged India-Taliban engagement in a third country, namely, Qatar, where the Taliban keep an office for (extra) regional diplomatic and political engagement. Since India has not formally recognised the Taliban rule, the latter was absent in the said regional security dialogue in New Delhi.

The Taliban are thus engaging with both India and Pakistan, who view each other as archrivals. Each carries a particularistic view of China. For Pakistan, the latter is a strategic partner; for India, it is a strategic and commercial competitor. How can one explain this puzzle? How can one make sense of India and Pakistan’s diplomacy on Afghanistan? How can Russia and China’s behaviour be contextualised? What about the Central Asian States? Are they going to take sides or stay neutral? How is Iran viewing the situation in Afghanistan in particular and the rest of the region in general? And, how can one factor in the USA in these regional entanglements?

To address these questions, one needs to focus on none of these countries but Afghanistan. Why? Because it lacks formal international recognition. The Afghanistan under the Taliban is desperately trying to garner regional and global support in its favour. To this end, the Taliban, presumed to be a rational actor with a clear conception of costs and benefits, are willing to talk to any country that can help them attain global approval (de jure). Since India is getting closer to the US, and the latter is the global military and economic player that has frozen Afghanistan’s financial assets the Taliban, dying for economic aid, appear to be courting India in order to send a strategic signal to the US that they are willing to work with the its ally in the South Asian region. They are also eyeing economic assistance from New Delhi in the foreseeable future.

In other words, the Taliban are being cautious as far as their diplomacy is concerned. They are engaging with every important regional and international player. They are aware of the emerging blocs in the South Asian region: one desired by Pakistan and another initiated by India. Pakistan would have included China in its conception of the region whereas India would like to exclude mainland China. Russia, Iran and Central Asian countries would prefer neutrality in this bloc diplomacy. Each of these countries is likely to engage the Taliban-led Afghanistan bilaterally or multi-laterally, but not forming a new regional bloc or getting into one. Thus, given Taliban’s own political and economic interests coupled with regional rivalries particularly between Pakistan and India, the former is approaching, and being approved by, many a stakeholder regionally and internationally. It seems that the Taliban are focused on their topmost political objective: international recognition. Will they be able to get it in the coming months? Will Pakisan let the Taliban get under the Indian umbrella? Will the Chinese and Russians grant regional recognition despite Taliban’s engagement with the Americans?

There is no one-liner in this respect. However, one can build two scenarios. Scenario one: if China and the USA agree on Afghanistan’s future under the Taliban, the latter are likely to get international recognition. The presidents of China and the USA had a virtual meeting the other day. The two countries are struggling to get over the past bitterness. Rapid action from Washington and Beijing on Kabul is unlikely. Scenario two: if the US and China do not agree on the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the latter is not likely to get international recognition. However, if China and Russia along with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian countries move ahead to diplomatically recognise the Taliban, the latter would obtain, at least, de facto regional recognition. In that case, the US and India would stand antagonised and may be forced to come to terms with the situation.

In a nutshell, the Taliban in Afghanistan are desperate to get international recognition which is easier said than done. India and Pakistan are trying to counterbalancing each other in the region and beyond. Whether China, Russia and the other regional countries agree with Pakistan’s perspective on Afghanistan or the stalemate prevails, remains to be seen.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow. Currently, he is an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty

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