India and Russia have same goals in Afghanistan where Pakistan pulls the Taliban strings: Experts
India and the world knows without official acknowledgement that the main problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban but Pakistan while there is a scope for the Asian giant to do better in the present situation where Russia and China would not want things to go out of control, according to experts at a recent panel discussion.
The panellists for the discussion were Ambassador Anil Trugunayat, a distinguished fellow at VIF and the former Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta; Mr Roman Babushkin, the Deputy Chief of the Russian Mission in India; Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia and Mr Nandan Unnikrishnan, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
Ambassador Trigunayat gave credit to President Putin for investing a lot of capital in this special and privileged Indo-Russian relationship. In the last few years, India has shown very clearly through the purchase of defence equipment and such that it is well invested in maintaining a relationship with Russia.
"Afghanistan has always been important for India, and for Russia, Afghanistan is important due to reasons relating to geopolitics and also because Central Asia is their backyard. They are worried about drugs and terrorism from Afghanistan,” he said.
He said India has not been very involved in the discussions because India refuses to engage with the Taliban.
"India knows, and even the world knows but refuses to acknowledge that the main problem is not the Taliban but Pakistan. China and Russia are currently competing in the same geo-space, but at the same time, there is a sense of understanding between the two countries.
"As far as China and Pakistan are concerned, India does not have any role in Afghanistan and is already unhappy with the little influence," he added.
According to Amb. Trigunayat, there was certainly scope for India to do better in Afghanistan.
"Russia and China have similar concerns regarding terrorism and would like the Taliban to remain within the contours of a normal country. But the Taliban can only be pushed up to a certain point because the Taliban comprised several different groups," said Amb. Trigunayat, adding that in guarding the Indian border against terrorism from Afghanistan, India is all by itself.
"The Quad is also not relevant in this situation as the Quad members have very little influence on the Taliban," he said.
Roman Babushkin, the Deputy Chief of the Russian Mission in India, said Russia sees India as very involved in the future in terms of joint endeavours and that there is much more scope of cooperation.
"Afghanistan is now the focus of the international community. India and Russia’s engagement indicate that both countries have similar approaches and agendas. Both President Putin and Prime Minister Modi have agreed to open a clear line of communication for Afghanistan and have decided to cooperate in terms of information sharing, capacity building and regional security," he said.
“Russia believes that it is still too early to recognize the Taliban, but also it is too early to make final judgements”, he said.
"Russia believes that maintaining dialogue with the Taliban is imperative to maintaining the safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan. Another purpose is to motivate the Taliban to speedily return Afghanistan to normal."
He added that the US and other western countries that stayed in Afghanistan for the last 20 years bear the responsibility for what is happening in the country today and should therefore take the lead in the reconstruction of the country.
He also noted that with the instability caused by the Taliban takeover, there is a real possibility of an increase in drug trafficking and weapon smuggling in Afghanistan.
The ISIS factor in Afghanistan should also not be ignored by the international community as it still has plans to create a global caliphate and this threatens all of Central Asia and Russia directly as well, he said.
Amb. Sajjanhar, who was former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, noted that India in the past has maintained that there are no good or bad terrorists.
In the past month, there has been a lot of discussion as to whether the present Taliban is different from the Taliban of the past, whether the group has changed is something that remains to be seen.
“The Taliban have at least become very ‘media savvy’ and begun reaching out to other countries and saying things that the international community would like to hear,” he said.
The Amb. expressed doubts about the Taliban’s commitment towards its promises to the international community, such as on terrorism and drug trade, and already the cracks are beginning to show with rumours of in-fighting.
All countries in the region, especially Russia and Iran are vulnerable following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and that’s all the more reason for nations to come together to help ensure stability in Afghanistan.
“Russia and India wish for an inclusive government in Afghanistan and that is something that the Taliban promised. But Taliban’s actions till now have not been encouraging”, he said.
"They had promised that women would be able to participate in the government but we have not seen any headway in that direction. The international community needs to come together in regards to Afghanistan, and India and the Russian federation have an important role to play."
He added that humanitarian aid to Afghanistan should continue and Prime Minister Modi has also stated that he is eager to assist Afghanistan in that regard. The Taliban is looking for recognition but it should come with conditionalities on their performance.
"India has played its cards in Afghanistan well even with a limited amount of engagement. India is currently in talks with all the major actors in Afghanistan, except China and Pakistan." Also, he believed that BRICS’ declaration on Afghanistan was much more substantive than that of SCO.
Mr Unnikrishnan of ORF said India and Russia value their relationship with each other and in that context, both countries need to minimize the causes of friction between themselves.
"Till August 15 India and Russia had a different understanding of what was going on in Afghanistan. Russia sees the Taliban as a ‘liberating force’ that is taking control of the country away from foreign powers, India does not share that view,” he said.
In addition, he stated that if Russia saw the Taliban as a liberating movement, then why did it have to go through Pakistan to communicate with the Taliban. The international community continues to ignore the signs that the Taliban is merely a puppet that has been propped up by Pakistan, he said.
"The objective reality is that Russia and India’s end goals are very similar. Both India and Russia want Afghanistan to be stable, to have an inclusive government and to not be used as a launching pad for terrorists. These goals require Russia and India to cooperate," he said.
Jasmine Mehta, a fellow at Global Policy Insights, who summarized the arguments and points made by the other speakers, said that there were several unanimous observations made by the speakers during the discussion and one of them was that both Russia and India need to cooperate to help the Taliban in rebuilding Afghanistan and ensure that the Taliban keeps its multitude of promises of an inclusive government, women participation and not allowing the country to be used as a base for terror activities.
The panel discussion was concluded with a question from Mr Abhinav Pandya, the CEO and founder of Usanas Foundation, to all the speakers, followed by his closing remarks.
He stated the relevance of this discussion in the current discourse in Afghanistan. He also noted the US's regional failure and its strategic blunder in Afghanistan.
"USA didn’t read the writing on the wall and allowed Pakistan free hand to jeopardize its whole campaign by pumping life support into the jihadist and terror networks," he said.
He hoped that the international community, especially Russia and SCO, will take the lesson from it and identify the main forces of destabilization in Afghanistan to effectively achieve peace and security.