Time for India to name a special envoy for Kabul theatre 

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India’s decision to send two former envoys to participate in Afghan peace talks in Moscow (November 9) is a path-breaking decision, though not for the reasons cited by the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs. India’s participation, he said, is at the non-official level.  He asserted that there was no international pressure for Indian participation nor there is any change in India’s policy of not negotiating with the Taliban.  Moreover, India strongly underscores Afghan-led peace process and New Delhi coordinated with Kabul, which had sent members of High Peace Council, a non-official body, to Moscow.

Whatever be South Blocks’ considerations, the recourse to Amar Sinha, India’s former envoy to Kabul, and T.C.A. Raghavan, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, has distinct advantages.    They are domain knowledge experts who have a wide network of contacts in the region and enjoy a great degree of confidence among leaders of participating countries.

The Russian initiative to convene the meeting might not have produced any tangible results.  It was not meant to be.  Participation from other invited countries was at a low level.  The much larger Geneva Ministerial talks on Afghanistan, driven by the US, are scheduled for later this month.   Both the US and Russia were holding separate talks with the Taliban, although their stated goal was to encourage intra-Afghan dialogue.

Russia has large stakes in the region and is taking increasingly bigger mediatory role in international conflicts.  It had briefly flirted with a triangular series involving only China and Pakistan, which always advocated negotiations with the Taliban. Its invitation to India to participate in Moscow talks is a recognition of New Delhi’s stakes and its role.

Trump administration, from its inception, has envisioned a larger role for India in Afghan development.  Exemption from Iran sanctions given to development of Chabahar port and associated railway line is in reinforcement of American commitment to Afghan development and India’s strategic interests in the region.

China too is keen to coordinate with India on Afghanistan and the same was reflected at the Wuhan informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping. Some Central Asian countries have shown interest to join railway line projects connecting Afghanistan and Iran which would help them get an outlet through Chabahar port.

The port development and the railway lane from there to Zahedan open up a world of opportunities not just for India but also for the whole region comprising Central Asia, West Asia, Africa and South Asia. India has built a road linking Zaranj (South west Afghanistan) and Delaram, a major transportation centre with several major roads converging on the area in southern Afghanistan. Current trade from Afghanistan to India transiting through Pakistan can also be diverted via Chabahar port.  This will enhance the trade potential between the two countries several fold from under Rs. 1 billion now.

India and Iran had earlier initiated the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting Central Asia and southern Russia to Chabahar port. However, the potential offered by INSTC was not realized due to lack of infrastructure in Iran.  Extending the Zahedan rail line to Mashad will make INSTC more functional.  Uzbekistan is extending current rail lines and laying new ones connecting Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat in Afghanistan.  Herat is a gateway to Iran. According to the Asian Development Bank, better transportation links between Central Asia and Afghanistan can boost regional trade by upto $12 billion.  And get buyers for the vast mineral resources in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Is India prepared to exploit this vast potential?  Indian Foreign Office is not really equipped to translate such strategic bonanza into a reality.  Unless the Chabahar and rail line projects become economically viable, India will not be able to derive its strategic geo-political goals.  This is the lesson to India from its vast investment in Tajikistan air strip project that lay unused for lack of strategic perspective.

In my view, India will do well to appoint a special envoy to the region, comprising Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf region, for a wholistic approach. His domain knowledge, political patronage and goal oriented strategy will help India play a truly global role in the region.

(The above first appeared in Economic Times under the title India must name a special envoy for Kabul theatre – https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/india-must-name-a-special-envoy-for-kabul-theatre/)

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