(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Rezaul H Laskar)
India has again been kept out of a key meeting on Afghanistan convened by Russia that will see the participation of Pakistan, reflecting certain divergences between New Delhi and Moscow on the rapidly evolving situation in the war-torn country. The “extended troika” meeting, to be held in Qatar on August 11, will be joined by special envoys from Russia, the US, China and Pakistan. Qatar will host another meeting between the Afghan side and regional and international partners this month.
The extended troika meeting was called by Russia to push intra-Afghan talks to find a political settlement in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban have launched a massive offensive that has recently been expanded to cities such as Kandahar, Herat and Lashkargah.
The extended troika held its last two meetings in Moscow on March 18 and in Doha on April 30. The Indian side has taken up the inclusion of Pakistan – which New Delhi contends is backing the Taliban – at these meetings with the Russian side, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
Russia has said it keeps India informed about all developments under the troika format on Afghanistan, which includes the US and China, though it has shown little inclination of including India in discussions under the external troika even after acknowledging India’s stakes in Afghanistan, the people cited above said.
While India has backed the government of President Ashraf Ghani and is in talks with other stakeholders in Afghanistan, it has repeatedly opposed the imposition of any regime by force. However, the Russian side appears opposed to the continuation of the Ghani government and favours an interim set-up.
“Russia perceives Ghani as a US proxy and wants him removed. At the same time, Russia believes the Taliban will counter the Islamic State, which Russia sees as its main threat in Afghanistan, if the group comes to power. This is one of the reasons for Russia’s growing coordination with Pakistan,” one of the persons cited above said.
An explanation by Russia’s special presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, for keeping India out of the extended troika has not gone down well in New Delhi. Kabulov, who also oversees relations with India, told a recent online discussion that Russia only sees a role for India in “Afghanistan’s post-conflict development” as the country has no influence with the Taliban.
“Only countries that have an unequivocal influence on both sides (of the conflict in Afghanistan) participate” in the extended troika, Kabulov said.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s decision to club a visit to India in April with a trip to Pakistan – a move that reflected the growing ties between Moscow and Islamabad – also did not go down well with the Indian side. Lavrov’s move is believed to have led the Indian side to club a visit by the foreign minister to Georgia, which has strained ties with Russia, with a trip to Moscow in June.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said India had kept away from engaging the Taliban because of its own terrorism-related experiences while other stakeholders had engaged the group for the sake of political expediency.
“India’s exclusion from the extended troika and Kabulov’s remarks are a necessary cost of that lack of engagement. However, India has overcome its reservations in the last few months and made attempts to reach out to Taliban, but it will take more time for India to gain the necessary heft,” Patil said.