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Afghan settlement and the India-Pakistan-China triangle

On the morning of 6 June, the first research and educational programme of the Gorchakov Fund on the dialogue between Russia and the South Asia countries continued its work at On the morning of 6 June, the first research and educational programme of the Gorchakov Fund on the dialogue between Russia and the South Asia countries continued its work at the School of International Relations of St Petersburg State University.

The second day of the conference was opened by the panel discussion “Hotbeds of tension in South Asia.” It was moderated by Kirill Likhachev, PhD in History, Associate Professor at the Department of Theory and History of International Relations, St Petersburg University.

Datla Bala Venkatesh Varma, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of India to the Russian Federation (2018-2021)

Noted that South Asia should not be limited to only India and Pakistan issues as the activity of other states makes the region whole. According to the speaker, democracy has been well established in Nepal. The expert added that per capita income in Bangladesh has increased sevenfold in recent years. Parliament is elected in Bhutan, and this body begins to play an increasing role in decision-making, and Sri Lanka, despite all the difficulties, has returned to a democratic course. India has good relations with these latter countries:

We are cooperating with China within the framework of BRICS, SCO and the G20, but as long as there are border tensions, it is difficult to fully normalise relations with China. There are disputes with Pakistan in implementation of the Indus Water Treaty though India has resolved with Bangladesh issues over sharing of water resources. Our country is monitoring the situation in Afghanistan after Taliban takeover: it is important not to allow to use the Afghan territory for terrorist purposes. India is also concerned about the situation of the Indian diaspora in Afghanistan.

Alexander Knyazev, PhD in History, Professor at St Petersburg University, Leading Researcher of the MGIMO Institute for International Studies, focused on a peace settlement in Afghanistan.

According to the scholar, the country could follow two different trajectories, depending on whether the Taliban* radicalises or not. In a negative scenario, the state would revert to the state of the 1990s, when we were witnessing how local elites merged with international terrorist groups:

What can lead to radicalisation? When the Taliban* government came to power in 1996, only three countries recognised it, that is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The Taliban then turned their activities outwards. Their troops merged with al-Qaeda*. How to avoid this trend? Not to try to isolate this state and take part in its life instead: China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Uzbekistan are doing that today. This is not a revolutionary way, but a meticulous work.

Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA) in New Delhi,

Said that the entire region was concerned about the impact of intra-Afghan developments on neighbouring states. He mentioned that the dilemma that international community was facing today was that any humanitarian help extended to the Afghan population would indirectly strengthen Taliban in Kabul and add to their intransigence. He held that the Talban showed no interest in fulfilling their commitments about forming an inclusive government and ensuring women rights, which was a matter of concern.

According to him, there are three factions within the Taliban, i.e., the first, led by Amir Haibatullah Akhunzadeh, which is conservative but may not be as violent as the second important group led by the Haqqanis. The third group is led by Mullah Baradar, which negotiated the Doha deal with the US. The most radicalized group led by the Haqqanis controls the ministries of interior and defence. It was supposed to be close to the intelligence agencies in Pakistan, but today do not oblige Pakistan over the issue of TTP, which is using Afghan territory to attack Pakistan. In fact, after the Taliban returned to power, the TTP attacks have gone up by 25 per cent and the casualties have gone up by 100 per cent according to Pakistani researchers.

Muhammad Attar Javed, Director General of the Pakistan House think tank,

believes that the main areas of instability in South Asia are India’s disagreements with China and Pakistan’s with India. As the speaker suggested, this is a non-classical conflict, as it involves three countries, and Pakistan stays deprived of a share of the economic potential because of it. During the discussion, Muhammad Attar Javed expressed the need for a deeper understanding of the way the local population live in Afghanistan in order to find a peaceful solution acceptable to all ethnic groups of the country:

Afghans do not like external interference. Since the time of Alexander the Great, they have a negative attitude towards foreigners, strictly observe Sharia norms and lead a nomadic lifestyle. They do not have the dynamics that we put into this term. Afghanistan also does not have a centralised government: you cannot force them to start building skyscrapers and give up their nomadic lifestyle. If you do not interfere with their internal affairs, they will not bother you either.

Irina Serenko, PhD in Pedagogy, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Middle East Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

Pointed out that since the Taliban* came to power in 2021, tribal divisions in Afghanistan have intensified. The researcher told the attendees that the main sticking point is between two groups of influence: the executive branch in Kabul and the spiritual leaders’ headquarters in Kandahar. The expert shared statistics that give an insight into the internal political and social situation in the country:

More than 20 terrorist organisations are active in the country, with ISIS* occupying a special place among them. The opposition has 22 armed groups, mostly located in the north of the country, and continues to resist the Afghan authorities. The main challenges faced by Afghanistan are cash and food shortages, as well as mass production of drugs: 80% of the world’s addicts use heroin originating in Afghanistan. ⅔ of the Afghan population are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and 6 million people are on the brink of starvation.

Archana Upadhyay, Professor, Director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University:

Reminded the audience that the South Asian region as a political entity emerged after the decolonisation of 1947. This part of the planet is characterised by multi-ethnicity. The Indian guest believes that the strict drawing of borders do not work in this space:

The geopolitical fabric of South Asia is complex and has become increasingly fragmented in recent years. Afghanistan and Bhutan were buffer zones but today they need to become developed nations. The inconsiderate drawing of borders causes immense suffering to the locals. The state of Assam is a graphic example.

The expert session was ended with a speech delivered by Kirill Likhachev. He thinks that despite the fact that most countries of the world have not officially recognised the new Afghan authorities, many global actors enjoy their own negotiation formats with the Taliban*. Russia and China are more interested in integrating Afghanistan into the continental system and preventing the emergence of a new hotbed of instability. He concluded that India and Pakistan also want their neighbour not to become a new terrorist haven:

Thanks to its financial and infrastructural capacity China could have become the power engine of Afghanistan’s development, but, like other global powers, has not recognised the Taliban*. The situation is similar when it comes to Russia, which is interested in the TAPI gas pipeline project and the possible mining in Afghanistan. Having extended its authority over most of the country’s territory, Kabul expected an influx of external funding, but has so far given insufficient security guarantees to foreign actors to implement possible infrastructure or trade and economic projects.

This was followed by a workshop for young international relations specialists entitled “Case Study: How to effectively assess international processes and events” and led by Alexander Knyazev.

The interactive case study “The Afghan crisis and its impact on Russia’s cooperation with South Asia” became the final section of the second working day of the Dialogue. The participants were divided into groups and developed possible models for how national governments would respond to the shift of power in Afghanistan on behalf of the states concerned.

The Asian Dialogue is the first research and educational programme of the Gorchakov Fund on the dialogue between Russia and the South Asia countries. The event is taking place at the School of International Relations of St Petersburg State University.

More than 60 representatives of Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as Iran and Uzbekistan become the Dialogue participants. The experts of the forum are discussing the fundamental avenues for cooperation with the countries of the region, as well as domestic issues which directly affect the foreign policy course of the South Asia states.