Against the backdrop of relentless attacks and violence in Afghanistan, India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval made an important visit to Kabul on the 13th of January 2021.[i] This is the first high-level visit from India since Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as the President for a second five year term on 10th March 2020 and the visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Varshan Shringla to Kabul in February 2020.[ii] During his two-day visit, NSA met with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Former President Hamid Karzai, the First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, CEO and his counterpart Hamidullah Mohib among others in a bid to “synchronise efforts to combat terrorism” and expand cooperation.[iii]
The NSA’s visit took place at a critical juncture; given the alarming slow pace of the intra-Afghan-negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban in Doha and the sharp spike in violence in Afghanistan in the recent weeks, especially that targeted intellectuals and civilians in influential positions. Over the past few months, major cities across Afghanistan had witnessed waves of killing[iv] in which human rights activists, journalists[v], female judges[vi] were systematically targeted. Although there was no official announcement from the Indian side, the Afghan National Security Council confirmed NSA’s meetings with Afghan leaders. With reference to the meeting with President Ghani, Afghan Chargé d’Affaires in India Tahir Qadiry tweeted that the two “discussed cooperation in countering terrorism and strengthening a regional consensus on the Afghan peace process”.[vii] Referring to his meeting with the Indian NSA, the First Vice President posted on Twitter “Had a pleasant meeting with NSA Ajit Doval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion.”[viii] Considering Saleh[ix] has been extremely vocal about the role of Pakistan in destabilising Afghanistan, it is perhaps not very difficult to comprehend the “enemy” that he was referring to. Interestingly, a few days later, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated that Pakistan has complained to the Afghan government – “with evidence” - that India is playing the role of a spoiler in the Afghan Peace Process.[x]
NSA Ajit Doval’s visit can be seen as a signal to both Afghanistan and the neighbourhood that India is keenly watching the developments on the ground amidst its own policy calibrations vis-a-vis Afghanistan. It is important to note that a few days before NSA’s tour, it was announced[xi] that India will be heading three crucial committees namely, the Taliban sanctions committee, the counter-terrorism committee for the year 2022 and the Libya Sanctions Committee as a member of the United Nations Security Council. Although India participated at the inauguration ceremony of the Doha talks and has constantly reiterated its backing for an “Afghan owned, Afghan led and Afghan controlled” peace process, it has shown a considerable degree of indifference towards the negotiations with the Taliban. At the Geneva Pledging Conference[xii], while extending its support to Afghanistan, India had flagged its concern regarding the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations and highlighted the importance of protecting the gains of the past two decades. There are genuine doubts in the mind of Indian policy makers about the feasibility of such expectations.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s visit to Kabul in January 2021, immediately after the beginning of the second round of talks in Doha triggered the possibility of the establishment of an interim transitional government – a longstanding Taliban demand- something that did not go down well with President Ghani.[xiii] Under the given situation, an important priority for New Delhi is to assess strength and viability of the current political dispensation in Kabul, which has been fighting for legitimacy and survival against a systematic onslaught from the Taliban. The global power play in general and the transition from Trump to Biden Presidency in Washington in particular, will also have a profound impact on the dynamics in Kabul. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s declaration[xiv] that the Biden administration would not commit to a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 on the grounds that the Taliban has not honoured its commitments of the Peace Agreement could invite strong retaliation from the insurgent group. Considering the Taliban’s statement[xv] on the US elections indicated that anything less than a full US withdrawal will be a deal-breaker, Kabul can very well prepare itself for a violent season ahead.
Last year New Delhi witnessed several high profile visits from Afghanistan namely Abdullah Abdullah, Field Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Ata Mohammad Noor and that provided India opportunities to strengthen old ties. Considering the factionalism endemic to Afghanistan, no power today can afford to restrict itself to engaging with any one faction in Afghanistan. NSA’s meeting with Afghan leaders across the spectrum only underlined that India will be engaging with all the stakeholders that India views are its allies. Over the years, New Delhi has been closely and constantly assessing the situation in Afghanistan, and therefore, NSA’s visit can be seen as an important message by India at a significant juncture of Afghanistan’s transition.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[i] “NSA Doval holds talks in Afghanistan”. The Hindu, January 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ajit-doval-meets-afghan-leadership-discusses-issues-of-mutual-interest-counter-terrorism-co-op/article33569718.ece (Accessed on 16. 01.2021)
[ii] “Visit of Foreign Secretary to Afghanistan (28-29 February 2020)”. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February 29, 2020. Available at: https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32441/Visit+of+Foreign+Secretary+to+Afghanistan+February+2829+2020 (Accessed on 16. 01.2021)
[iii]Rezaul H Laskar, “Synchronising efforts, says Afghanistan on NSA Ajit Doval’s quiet Kabul visit”. The Hindustan Times, January 13, 2021. Available at:https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/nsa-doval-visits-afghanistan-for-talks-on-strategic-issues-101610537602831.html (Accessed on 16. 01.2021)
[iv]At least four killed, many wounded in Afghanistan attacks.” Al Jazeera, December 28, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/28/at-least-four-killed-in-afghanistan-attacks (Accessed on 16. 01.2021)
[vi]Jo”Two female judges shot dead in Kabul as wave of killings continues”. The Guardian, January 17, 2021. Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/17/two-female-judges-shot-dead-in-kabul-as-wave-of-killings-continues (Accessed on 20.1.2021)
[vii] “HE President @AshrafGhani met Indian NSA HE AjitDoval who is on a 2-day visit to #kabul, at Presidential Palace today. The two sides discussed cooperation in countering terrorism and strengthening a regional consensus on the Afghan peace process.” @TahirQadiry-Twitter Handle of HE Tahir Qaridy, January 13, 2021. Available at: https://twitter.com/tahirqadiry/status/1349309997394530305/photo/1 (Accessed on 20.1.2021)
[viii] “Had a pleasant meeting with NSA AjitDoval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion. Thanks @ @NSCAfghan & @IndianEmbKabul for the good work”. @AmrullahSaleh2--Twitter Handle of HE Amrullah Saleh, January 13, 2021. Available at: https://twitter.com/AmrullahSaleh2/status/1349982288101208064/photo/1 (Accessed on 20.1.2021)
[ix] “We will never bow to Pakistan, Afghan vice-presidential candidate AmrullahSaleh says”. FRANCE24 English, March 27, 2019. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KvKODoKLlY (Accessed on 20.1.2021)
[x]Shakeel Ahmed, “India Spoiling Afghan Peace Process: Qureshi”, DAWN, January 18, 2021. Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1602130/india-spoiling-afghan-peace-process-qureshi (Accessed on 20.1.2021)
[xi] “India heads crucial UNSC panels, gets foothold in Afghan peace process and Pakistan's terror record”. Zee News, January 8, 2021. Available at: https://zeenews.india.com/india/india-heads-crucial-unsc-panels-gets-foothold-in-afghan-peace-process-and-pakistans-terror-record-2334832.html?fbclid=IwAR2904-WoODgOzr4W97VuPErqxq1eHv6ImdpM3Cgx3mn4SSkDF2QZ1rbu-Q (Accessed on 29.1.2021)
[xii] “2020 Afghanistan Conference”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, 23-24 November, 2020. Available at: https://um.fi/afghanistan-conference-2020. (Accessed on 29.1.2021)
[xiii] “Politicians hint at establishment of interim government”. Ariana News, January 7, 2021. Available at: https://ariananews.af/politicians-hint-at-establishment-of-interim-government/?fbclid=IwAR0l27U0KoNw_Qq0VromefYjmfNVIL5Qc2_I0rVOE2rndEsOOQ6ceVpUcII (Accessed on 29.1.2021)
[xiv] Jennifer Hansler and Oren Liebermann, “Pentagon won't commit to Afghanistan troop withdrawal by May, says Taliban are not honoring commitments to US”. CNN, January 29, 2021. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/28/politics/pentagon-afghanistan-taliban-commitments/index.html?fbclid=IwAR1ofwKAVyEz7Ma8ltV_glfYGeQrfyLoD67jpx1C37yaQF6o0cwBUvVWa2o (Accessed on 29.1.2021)