After the Delhi conference, can Russia and Iran join the India+Central Asia dialogue on Afghanistan?


Leaders at the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan.

The recent conference on Afghanistan hosted by India in which security chiefs of Russia, Iran, and the five Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan participated, has been important at several levels.

For one, it puts India back in the picture. Till now more of an observer to the tumultuous events in Afghanistan since 15 August, India has demonstrated its resolve to be more involved in it.

Secondly, it reflects the importance of security angle in the region. Third, it proves that there is more in common in the position taken by India and of the majority stakeholders in the region, given that seven of the nine countries invited participated in it. Fourthly, it demonstrated the importance that the Central Asian countries and old buddy Russia attach to their relationship.

Finally, willy nilly it showed up two potential groupings in the region: India, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries on one hand and China and Pakistan - both of whom had been invited but declined participation - on the other.

While too much should not be read into this, it nevertheless opens up possibilities.

The Delhi Declaration on Afghanistan is significant for the fact that the seven countries are on the same page on a number of issues, in spite of the fact that they have varying approaches to Afghanistan, or to be specific, to Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

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So, for instance, while Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have warm relations with the Taliban, Iran has an increasingly hesitant position. India has the least engagement while Tajikistan is firmly opposed to them.

Nevertheless, they all agree that the Taliban has to form a government that is much more broad-based and far more inclusive than the one that is currently in place. They also all agree that the Taliban first need to gain legitimacy in the eyes of local Afghans before it can expect international recognition. And they definitely agree that Afghanistan should not harbour terrorist groups or turn into a launchpad for terrorist attacks on other countries in the region and further afar.

Yet, a careful reading of the statement will demonstrate that there is nothing in it fundamentally different from the Moscow conference for instance.

Therefore, what was indeed unique about the Delhi meeting of the National Security Advisors of the seven countries was that it was more like an extended format of India-Central Asia Dialogue, which also included Russia and Iran.

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The first India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in 2019 January in the beautiful, historical city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It was the culmination of years of India's desire to forge close ties with Central Asian Republics (CARS), but which received great impetus after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to all the CARS in 2015. Along with major civilizational linkages, India and the CARS are invested in each other for business and resources, given India's huge market, hi-tech, and the resources of the CARS.

However, another major component of the relationship is security, and Afghanistan is a major factor here. That is why the first India-Central Asia Dialogue also had an Afghan component.

The new reality in Afghanistan since August 15, when the Taliban took over Kabul,   demonstrates the greater need for coordination between India, the CARS, along with Russia. While approaches to the Taliban differ, the threats for all remain the same - terrorism, cross-border attacks, the spread of religious radicalism, the rise of political Islam, drug and human trafficking.

In this scenario an extended format with India plus Russia plus CARS may be considered. While other powers like the US and China have their outreach to Central Asia, India has an edge because of its excellent relations with Russia (now all set to further grow) as well as with the US. This will not conflict with the "multi-vectoral" policy of the CARS, but will also sit neat with Russia as it, unlike China, has no irredentist claims on CARS, Russia's sphere of influence.

The recent NSA meet in Delhi, thus, is of far more significance than is apparent.