The complete evacuation of Indian diplomats from Afghanistan in August following the Taliban’s takeover of the country crippled New Delhi’s diplomacy there. The South Asian state has since struggled to remain diplomatically relevant. Its latest effort towards reviving its influence is the National Security Advisor (NSA) summit that it’s hosting on Wednesday to discuss the path forward in Afghanistan. Representatives from Russia, Iran, and some of the Central Asian Republics (CARS) will attend. Noticeably absent, however, are Pakistan and China. They were invited, but Islamabad refused because New Delhi is a “spoiler” in the conflict, while Beijing declined on the basis of “scheduling issues”. Without their participation, the summit is unlikely to achieve much tangible significance.
It’s important to mention that the Pakistani capital plans to host another meeting of the Extended Troika between that country’s representatives, Russia’s, China’s, and the US the day after on Thursday. Considering the significance of those participants in determining the future of Afghanistan, their summit is expected to overshadow the gathering in New Delhi the day prior. This prediction further reinforces the observation that India is nowhere near as diplomatically relevant in de facto Taliban-led Afghanistan as it was during the nearly two decades when the US still occupied the country. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that India should give up. On the contrary, the fact that Russian, Iranian, and CAR representatives will attend its meeting speaks to the high hopes they have of its future potential.
To explain, those countries believe that the partial revival of Indian influence in Afghanistan could serve as an indirect means to prevent that country from disproportionately falling under Pakistani and Chinese influence. They appreciate the over $3 billion that India invested in several hundred socio-economic projects across Afghanistan over the last two decades. The only obstacle to restoring relations between those two is New Delhi’s presumable concern that the optics of its Hindu nationalist government partnering with an Islamic fundamentalist one run by a group that it considers to be terrorists could be domestically unpalatable. This is especially the case since many in India regard the Taliban as Pakistani proxies even though those two have recently had some disagreements over their border crossings.
Slowly but surely, however, ties are thawing between India and the Taliban. New Delhi is simply too important of a legacy partner for Kabul for either of them to retain this tense state of affairs indefinitely. The first official contact that Indian representatives finally made with their Taliban counterparts is a positive sign. Recent reports show that the group wanted India to resume flights to Afghanistan. To be clear, there’s no trust between them due to India’s former support of the US-backed Afghan National Army’s (ANA) campaign against the Taliban, but both sides seem to be pragmatic enough to understand that it’s mutually beneficial to gradually begin restoring their countries’ strategic relations, even if it’ll of course still take quite a lot of time to do so. What’s most important is to get the process started.
Wednesday’s NSA summit aims to show some of the stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future that India still has an interest in that country’s affairs. Despite the self-inflicted damage that it did to its diplomacy by completely evacuating the country instead of retaining a bare-bones presence there, India wants Russia, Iran, and the CARs to know that it hasn’t abandoned Afghanistan that its current setbacks are intended to be temporary. Those countries’ representatives know that India isn’t influential in shaping Afghan affairs nowadays, but they’re still attending its summit to show how much they respect it as a partner as well as to express their deep strategic desire for it to begin restoring its influence there as soon as possible.
Observers shouldn’t misinterpret these intentions as signalling that they’re against Pakistan and China’s role in de facto Taliban-led Afghanistan, just that they believe that everyone’s interests would best be served in the long term if India returns to being among that country’s top strategic partners. By showing respect for India’s security interests there despite its lack of influence to ensure such, those countries are encouraging New Delhi to continue its gradual rapprochement with the Taliban and possibly even suggesting that they’ll facilitate this process however they can if they’re requested to do so. This has been the Russian stance since the very beginning, and it seems like India is finally receptive to the well-intended outreaches of its special and privileged strategic partner.