An Afghan puzzle for India-Russia regional strategy
Strategic convergence in Afghanistan is one of the important pillars of the India-Russia relationship. New Delhi and Moscow have a long history of dealing with the Afghan issue, and both share a deep understanding of each other's approaches.
Over three decades ago, Secretary Gorbachev and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi agreed (on July 02, 1987) to create conditions for the emergence of an independent, non-aligned Afghanistan that would be friendly with all its neighbours. Around the same time, India was also attempting to facilitate conversations between the Soviet Union and the US over the Afghan issue. After the end of the Cold War, India and Russia again came together to fight against extremist elements like AQ and the Taliban. They established ‘India-Russia Joint Working Group on Afghanistan’ in late 2000. Post 9/11, both the countries supported the US-led coalition on the War on Terror, but always advocated the UN-led solution to the Afghan crisis.
There were significant geopolitical shifts around 2014. Russia was deeply unhappy with the stance of western powers and specifically NATO, during the Crimean crisis. China also launched its predatory economic policies under the garb of BRI and adopted an aggressive posture in the larger Indo-Pacific region. It is broadly in this geopolitical flux that China and Russia questioned the prolonged presence of the US in Afghanistan and also started to engage with the Taliban. While Russia and China had a head start in terms of open engagement with the Taliban, New Delhi expressed its displeasure with the Taliban's ideological framework.
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, once again brought India and Russia together to deal with the same issues that they were discussing at the beginning of the century, such as security concerns emanating from terrorist safe havens, drugs trade, illegal weapon smuggling, and stability in Afghanistan.
There is a perception that Russia's growing reliance on China and its changed approach towards the Taliban regime can be seen as support to the Sino-Pak nexus in Afghanistan, far from Gorbachev’s idea of an independent non-aligned Afghanistan. However, such a perception may not be completely accurate.
When a leading media channel ran a story that India was not invited to the ‘Moscow Dialogue’ held in March 2020, the Russian Embassy in Delhi immediately clarified, that the “dialogue between Russia and India has always been very close and forward-looking on all global and regional issues, including the situation in Afghanistan.” There is no denying that India and Russia maintained constant communication over the developments in Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Republic Government in Kabul, Prime Minister Modi and President Putin held a detailed conversation on Afghanistan. In November, India-Russia-Iran held a trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan and India also participated in the Moscow format meeting held in October 2021. The participation of Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, in the ‘Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan’ also indicated the close cooperation between the two countries.
In multilateral and bilateral meetings with the Taliban, Russia is taking a more diplomatic approach by insisting that the Taliban leadership honor their commitments of an inclusive government, protect human rights, and act against terrorist organizations. This is similar to India’s position alluded to in the ‘Delhi Declaration’. However, this document stands distinct from other joint statements, some of which are more lenient, refrain from referring to any accountability mechanisms and instead, blindly put faith in the Taliban’s verbal assurances.
Indeed, there is a difference between India’s long-standing reluctance to engage with the Taliban and the Russian approach to Afghanistan. However, both countries can work together to overcome structural, geopolitical, and ideological impediments to bring stability in Afghanistan which is crucial for their shared dream of North-South connectivity.
In the last two decades, India has invested over US$3 billion in more than 400 projects in Afghanistan, including 202-km Phul-e-Khumri electricity transmission line, Salma Dam and recently signed an agreement for the construction of the Shatoot dam, which would provide safe drinking water to 2 million residents of Kabul city. India announced significant commitments at the Afghanistan conference 2020, including Phase-IV of the High Impact Community Development Projects, worth US$ 80 million. With the Taliban at the helm of affairs, India may require more support from a long-standing partner like Russia to continue these projects.
India is trying to maintain its strategic autonomy through well-balanced relationships with diverse partners in a multipolar world. Along with the US, Japan, and Australia, India is jointly working on keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open. India is keen on Russia’s proactive participation in the Indo-Pacific framework. On India’s western frontiers, the Af-Pak region is in turmoil. India and Russia are the only two countries that are very keen on combating religious extremism. Therefore, it becomes imperative that both countries coordinate their efforts to define the trajectory of political developments in Af-Pak and beyond.
The author is a Research Associate with the National Security Program at Delhi Policy Group