Regional Multilateral Consultations On Afghanistan – Analysis


By Ayjaz Wani

Afghanistan, under the Taliban’s control, has become a victim of one of its biggest humanitarian crises wrought by widespread food shortages, unemployment and restrictions on women’s fundamental rights. The prevalent turmoil in Afghanistan has created a conducive environment for the resurgence of radical terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) and Al-Qaeda. Taliban-led Afghanistan is thus posing a security risk not just within its immediate neighbourhood, but in the whole of Eurasia.

Amidst the worsening situation in Afghanistan and the increasing fragility of global world order, the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of the region, including India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, met in Moscow for the 5thmultilateral security dialogue on Afghanistan on 8 February 2023. This multilateral security dialogue, representing the concerns of Afghanistan’s South Asian, Central Asian, and Eurasian neighbours, is one of the many multilateral consultations discussing the regional and global implications of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. However, internal disagreements and divergences have blunted the efforts of these multilateral groupings to arrive at any consensual intervention to counter the growing security risk posed by a fragile Afghanistan.

Multilateral NSA dialogue on Afghanistan:

The regional leaders, excluding Pakistan, started the multilateral security dialogue through their NSAs in 2018 to discuss regional security and stability given the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan gave the cold shoulder to the dialogue maintaining that it was designed and driven by New Delhi to gain regional strategic clout. Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s NSA in the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani, participated in the dialogue’s first two iterations. The fault lines within the ministerial dialogue came to the forefront even before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s national security council deputy secretary lambasted certain regional countries for adopting “double standards” on terrorism.

Following the Doha Peace Agreement of 2020 and the subsequent withdrawal of United States (US) troops, Afghanistan plunged into an uncertain future, paving the way for the collapse of the elected government and the resurgence of the Taliban. After snatching power in 2021, the Taliban government quickly rescinded its commitments to honour international norms and establish an inclusive government that will uphold women’s rights. The Taliban rulers also rekindled their relationship with other global terror groups.

Therefore, the third multilateral security dialogue held in New Delhi in November 2021, months after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, gained immense significance. Seven countries, including the five Central Asian Republics, Russia and Iran, discussed how to stem the instability from spilling across Afghanistan’s borders. China, citing scheduling issues and Pakistan, because of its long-standing issues with India, preferred to stay away. Islamabad deplored the consultations as a “futile attempt” and called New Delhi “a spoiler” that “cannot be a peacemaker”.

Nonetheless, the ministerial dialogue concluded with a joint statement in the Delhi Declaration on Afghanistan. It reinforced the commitments of the participants to support a “peaceful, secure, and stable” Afghanistan, expressed concern over the sufferings of the Afghan people, and called for an inclusive government. The declaration also mentioned the plight of the Afghan refugees, the situation of women, children and minorities and pledged cooperation and continuance of the dialogue.

China overcame its scheduling issues and joined the fourth ministerial dialogue in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in May 2022. Pakistan again remained absent. The participants followed up on the Delhi Declaration and discussed constructive ways to ensure Afghanistan’s stability and peace.

During the recent meeting in Moscow, India’s NSA Ajit Doval reaffirmed India’s policy towards Afghanistan under the Delhi Declaration. He reiterated India’s stand for the establishment of a representative and inclusive government and responding to the humanitarian needs of the people of Afghanistan. Doval also highlighted the need to evolve a mechanism of intelligence and security cooperation between the dialogue partners to deal with regional terror groups, including the ISKP and Al-Qaeda.

Other multilateral consultations on Afghanistan 

Besides the ministerial dialogue, two other regional multilateral groupings, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Afghanistan Contact Group (ACG) and the Moscow format consultations, have come to put together a collective regional response to the emerging threats from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The SCO created the ACG in 2005 to formulate cooperative strategies for Afghanistan’s security and stability. Subsequently, in 2009, Russia hosted the first ACG, attended by representatives from the UN, US, EU, NATO, and OIC. However, the ACG became defunct following the escalation of violence across West Asia and the Syrian crisis. The group was revived in 2017 after Russia and Iran changed their policy towards the Taliban. The last meeting of ACG was held in Tajikistan before the resurgence of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in early 2021. All the foreign ministers of SCO member states and Afghanistan attended this meeting.

In 2017, Russia established the Moscow Format of Consultations on Afghanistan. The first meeting under the Moscow Format was held in Moscow, attended by the special envoys of China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and the five Central Asian Republics. The Moscow Format Consultations resumed after a five-year break in 2022, in which India and Pakistan participated. The joint statement issued by the participating envoys asked the Taliban to take firm and more visible steps to eliminate regional and global terror groups from Afghanistan and reaffirmed their inclination to assist the Taliban government in this regard.

Additionally, to create convergence, India started another NSA-level multilateral initiative with the five Central Asian Republics in December 2022 to discuss the fragile situation in Afghanistan and its geostrategic and geoeconomic implications.

The way forward

Geopolitical divisions and clashing interests among the countries of the multilateral consultations mentioned above have complicated the problems in Afghanistan. Unlike the West, the regional countries, especially those who share their borders with Afghanistan, cannot move out of Afghan conundrum without solving it. Regional countries like Pakistan can ignore the NSA-level security dialogue. Still, their vested interests and relations with China and Russia prevent them from ignoring the other regional consultations like the Moscow format and ACG.

India has achieved successful convergence and engagement of like-minded regional partners on the Delhi Declaration of Afghanistan. New Delhi has also won the hearts of common Afghans through continued humanitarian aid, even under the current Taliban regime. Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, New Delhi has sent 40,000 metric tonnes of wheat, 500,000 COVID-19 vaccines, and 60 tonnes of medicines and provided scholarships to  2,260 Afghan students. Even the Taliban regime praisedIndia’s pledge of US$25 million in development aid for Afghanistan in its Union Budget 2023-24.

A peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan can become a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia. Under its SCO Presidency for 2023, India will host the SCO Foreign Ministers conference in May at Goa. While India has extended the invitation, Pakistan is yet to confirm attendance. But for the SCO, the best way forward is to solve the regional problems without prejudice. The Delhi Declaration is endorsed by all regional countries and by all regional multilateral consultations. New Delhi must also use its diplomatic outreach to pitch for intelligence sharing on terror groups under the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and should work with like-minded regional partners to revive the defunct ACG.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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