India is attempting to diplomatically navigate through the competing interests of mutually antagonistic states—Iran and the United States-- to secure its own in Afghanistan. Five days after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared in Delhi on August 6, in the presence of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, “India supports President Trump’s Afghan policy”, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale met his Iranian and Afghan counterparts Abbas Aragchi and Hekmat Karzai in Kabul for the first India-Iran-Afghanistan tripartite meeting at the Deputy Foreign Minister level.
Diplomacy in Troubled Afghanistan
The meeting was held in the backdrop of continuing terrorist violence perpetrated by the Taliban and the ISIS all across Afghanistan signalling a grim security situation.
The country is heading to Parliamentary polls scheduled for next month but nothing can be said for sure on that account.
The National Unity Government has remained a divided house. This has contributed to political uncertainty. While contacts between Taliban representatives and those of the government have taken place, the former remain recalcitrant and the reconciliation process has not made headway. Moreover, Pakistan has not let up on its interference. Amidst all this, Trump’s Afghanistan policy lies in shreds.
Thus, the trilateral meeting was an important Indian and Iranian signal of support to the Afghan government and people at this critical juncture.
Convergence on Chabahar
A joint statement issued at the conclusion of the tripartite meeting mentioned that the three countries discussed “economic cooperation, including Chabahar, as well as enhancing co-operation on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and continuing support for the peace and reconciliation process that is led and owned by Afghanistan”.
The views of the three countries coincide on Chabahar and counter-narcotics. There are areas of divergence, though, on approaches to counter-terrorism and, linked to it, the hitherto unsuccessful reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Pakistan is unlikely to allow India overland access via Wagah/Attari and through Punjab into Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan also makes it almost impossible for Indian goods to reach Afghanistan through the Karachi port. The development of Iran’s Chabahar port is therefore of vital importance for India to secure connectivity to Afghanistan and beyond.
Modi’s visit to Tehran in 2016 provided a boost to India-Iranian cooperation to develop the Chabahar project. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani joined Modi and Iranian President Rouhani in the Tehran meeting and the three decided to have a trilateral agreement for transport and transit of goods via Chabahar into Afghanistan. A ministerial committee was set up to provide oversight to this important process. It has met twice, the last in December 2017 in Delhi. The legal framework for transport and transit has moved ahead. Iran has also agreed to lease two jetties to India to develop. Although the US sanctions on Iran are complicating cooperation, matters are expected to be resolved to enable India to take over jetties and begin work.
Trump Must be Convinced
General John Nicholson, who handed over command of the US forces in Afghanistan on September 2, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2017 “Iranian-India-Afghanistan cooperation over the Chabahar port presents great economic potential”. At that stage President Trump had just assumed office. He had threatened to undo the US-Iran nuclear deal during the campaign but it was unknown how far he would go to pressure Iran.
It is now clear that Iran is his foremost enemy and ever tougher sanctions are likely to be imposed on it. In this context will the US be able to take the pragmatic approach indicated in Nicholson’s testimony?
India would do well to point to it and urge the US to recognise that Chabahar’s development will be advantageous to the US in the long-term.
Otherwise, Indian companies will face difficulties and hurdles in operationalising agreements.
Drugs, Terrorism & Clash of Interests
There is great diffidence in Afghanistan and in the international community, too, to acknowledge that narcotics has been a major factor in preventing its stabilisation. Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium. It causes havoc in Iran and impacts India too. There is great need for India-Iran-Afghanistan cooperation to curtail if not eliminate Afghan opium.
Through the 1990s India, Iran and Russia had cooperated to sustain the Rabbani government. They had prevented the Taliban from completely overrunning the country. Now, Russia and Iran are giving material support to the Taliban on the ground that their cooperation is essential in the fight against ISIS in Afghanistan. This is a specious, and dangerous, argument.
Russian and Iranian approaches are based on their larger interests in taking on the US rather than the Afghan ground situation. Hence, they are unlikely to change. For India, however, it is vital to maintain an intense dialogue with Iran on Afghanistan even if its views differ on the Taliban threat.
The Afghans are projecting that their reconciliation process with the Taliban is moving ahead. The US is signalling that the Taliban are showing flexibility. None of this, however, is borne out by the ground situation. President Ghani is, sadly, appearing as a supplicant before the Taliban. In a scenario like this, it is important for India to be and act as an independent power in Afghanistan. The tripartite meeting has assisted in this projection.
(The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @VivekKatju. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)
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