Prospects for India-Saudi cooperation on Afghanistan

September 20, 2021 2:58 PM

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are important regional partners of India in the Gulf and broader Middle East.

india saudi tiesAs per the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the discussion between Prince Faisal and Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, included Afghanistan among other regional issues. (Photo source: Twitter/ @DrSJaishankar)

By Md. Muddassir Quamar, 

Recent developments in Afghanistan–the US military withdrawal and return of Taliban– has created security concerns for all regional countries in South and West Asia. Not least because of the possible instability in Afghanistan and the fear of escalation in jihadist violence but also because of the doubts created about US reducing its regional commitments. This means that the regional countries will have to work together to counter the threats emanating from an unstable Afghanistan. Therefore, India is exploring the possibility of cooperation with like minded countries including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are important regional partners of India in the Gulf and broader Middle East. Unlike in the past, both have come to see the Taliban as a major security threat not only for Afghanistan but for the wider region. For one, the Taliban has a history of giving refuge to Al-Qaeda which eventually led to the later planning and executing the September 11 attacks in the US. Eventually, this became the undoing for the Taliban regime, but the likelihood of both Taliban and Al-Qaeda to revive their partnership and begin from where they had left off in 2001 cannot be underestimated.

The evolving situation in Afghanistan is bound to create challenges for India both in terms of security dilemmas and its commitments towards stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Taliban are an unfriendly force for New Delhi and they are too closely linked to the Pakistani establishment for India to trust the group. Hence, despite some positive comments by Taliban leaders, the view in India is that New Delhi needs to be circumspect in engaging the group. At the same time, New Delhi has made no bones of working with any Afghan group and regional and international partners who are committed to the security and stability of Afghanistan and the wider Southwest Asia region. In fact, India has already made formal and informal contacts with Taliban and the regional actors involved in Afghanistan.

However, the question for India is to evolve a larger policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the Taliban regime without ruling out the possibility of a fast deterioration of political and security situation in the country. While many would like to rule out any role for the US in Afghanistan’s future, and this may seem to be true in the prevailing situation, it is unlikely that Afghanistan’s future can be determined without any role for the US and its western allies. India, therefore, needs to keep the short, medium and long terms scenarios in mind while devising its Afghanistan policy and explore the possibility of engaging the like minded countries to safeguard its interests.

Currently, the players which are actively involved in Afghanistan include China, Pakistan, Russia, Qatar, Iran and Turkey who are engaging the Taliban to maximize their influence over the group. While Qatar and Turkey have been providing technical support to Taliban to run the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Pakistani hands have been visible the way the interim Taliban government has taken shape. China and Russia are engaging the Taliban leadership to make them attuned to their security concerns as well as exploit economic opportunities. Iran, which has been engaging sections of Taliban for years, is weighing its options within the context of its security interests.

For India, the situation is much more complicated given that it finds itself isolated in Afghan geopolitics. Given the current status of bilateral relations with Pakistan and the threat perception vis-à-vis China, the possibility of cooperation with Islamabad or Beijing on Afghanistan is ruled out. Turkey’s lack of sensitivity towards India’s domestic issues makes it difficult to engage it in Afghanistan. That leaves India with the option of engaging with Russia, Iran and Qatar. However, in all three cases, the bilateral, regional and global geopolitical situation demands New Delhi to be circumspect.

The recent surge in New Delhi’s diplomatic exchanges with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi underlines the fact that these two form an important part of Indian calculus on Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and UAE have come a long way from being the only countries other than Pakistan to recognize the Taliban regime in the late 1990s. Both have not only eschewed their engagement with Taliban but also recognize the security threats posed by jihadi terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Post-September 11, both have partnered with the US on the ‘war on terror’ in the Middle East and since the Arab uprisings of 2010-11, the two Gulf countries have been at the forefront in fighting and countering radical Islamism.

In Afghanistan, both Saudi Arabia and UAE, like India, are concerned with similar threat perception. The fear of the Taliban revivingAfghanistan as the hub for regional and transnational terrorism looms large in India, Saudi and Emirati understanding. One might recall that the spectrum of contemporary global jihadism has its roots in Afghan jihad and Taliban was one of the major factors in terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, finding safe havens in Afghanistan.

Notably, the statements by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, during his media interactions while on a two-day (19-20 September 2021) visit to New Delhi clearly indicated that the Saudi concerns and threat perceptions vis-à-vis Taliban are similar to the Indian concerns and threat perceptions. Not surprising therefore that Afghanistan is high on the agenda of Prince Faisal’s first official visit to India. As per the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the discussion between Prince Faisal and Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, included Afghanistan among other regional issues. Prince Faisal also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while National Security Advisor Ajit Doval too had a meeting with the visiting Foreign Minister.

The fact that India and Saudi Arabia have in recent years significantly enhanced their security and defense partnership makes it clear that they would be working closely to deal with the possible security threats emerging from a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Although, in the immediate to medium term, they are likely to remain on the fringe of Afghan geopolitics, this may not remain the situation in the long run.

(The author is Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. Views expressed are of the author and do not reflect the views of MP-IDSA or Government of India. Neither does it reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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