The Ins and Outs of the India-US-Afghanistan Trilateral Dialogue

Outlining the next steps that can help India and the US evolve a mechanism to strengthen peacebuilding in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Putting behind them an era marked by distrust and excessive wariness, India and the US have now come out in favour of combining their efforts in Afghanistan. This attempt to collaborate has been a constructive development, perhaps the only positive one, in what has otherwise been a dreadful period for Afghanistan: Taliban’s advances continue, Kabul remains vulnerable and peace negotiations remain off the table. All this, even as the National Unity Government (NUG) continues to operate in paralysis mode; there is even a possibility that this grand arrangement may unravel as quickly as September end.

In the face of such formidable circumstances, the announcement of the India-US-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue is a step that many optimists will want to cling to. The optimist’s case for the alliance is: now that the most influential and the most popular geopolitical actors in Afghanistan are finally on the same page, the situation can only improve from here on out. However, sceptics have many lingering doubts, such as: what purpose does yet another political alliance concerned with Afghanistan serve? What about this alliance will prevent the US from going back to its traditional reliance on Pakistan? And finally, a third set of detractors think that such an arrangement is likely to hurt, rather than help Afghanistan. Such groups argue that “the trilateral is a joint war command for deciding India’s course in the proxy war”, even making the egregious claim that “Afghanistan’s increasingly close ties with India are directly responsible for the Taliban’s offensives.”

To clear the air, this article tries to answer the following questions: what are the possible areas of cooperation under this trilateral? What could be the mechanisms to ensure that this arrangement is equipped to achieve its aims? And finally, what could be some other areas of collaboration, beyond the stated scope of the trilateral?

What is the trilateral about?

In what can be seen as an indication of the decided areas of cooperation, John Kerry, the US state secretary specifically outlined four areas of cooperation in the New Delhi joint press conference:

“We will restart the trilateral at the UNGA (UN General Assembly). Doing so is going to enable us to determine how best to build on the past gains of securing villages, empowering women, educating students and promoting good governance across Afghanistan.”

These issues are indeed fundamental to restoring normalcy in Afghanistan. India has already demonstrated its long-term commitment to the people of Afghanistan in some of these areas. Under the 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement, India has provided training to the Afghan forces and recently also provided four helicopter gunships to Afghanistan. India is now Afghanistan’s fifth-largest bilateral donor with over $2 billion given to support Afghanistan’s infrastructure, engineering, training and humanitarian needs. India constructed Afghanistan’s parliament building, restored the Stor palace, built the Zaranj-Delaram segment of the Ring Road, re-erected transmission lines and aided power generation through the Salma Dam. On the human resources front, India has trained Afghan civil servants, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has trained Afghans in carpentry, plumbing and welding, while the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has educated more than three thousand Afghan women in micro enterprise. The Chabahar port promises to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan.  With such extensive experience behind it, the Indian government can assertively ramp up its contribution in mutually agreed upon areas.

How can the countries make this arrangement robust?

A lot more needs to be done to build a robust mechanism that will deliver long-lasting changes. It is important to carry the trilateral’s momentum forward and convert it into a truly meaningful platform for all the players invested in establishing peace in Afghanistan. India could convey information learnt from the US to its other informal allies, who have been collaborating since the Taliban era – Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia. A dialogue involving just three parties runs the risk of being seen as a proxy war between US-India as one side and China-Pakistan the other. However, if a much larger group is formed, practically all the players, with one notable exception, can be brought together to discuss peace in Afghanistan. Such a move will truly highlight the fact that terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a global threat and not limited to India and Afghanistan alone. Pakistan is already under the scanner after French authorities filed charges against a Pakistani citizen suspected of being a bomb-maker for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), in connection with the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

Thus, the culmination of the trilateral, in fact, lies in a much bigger grouping. While the US might not want to be a direct part of such a group itself, it might acquiesce to it. And, if Moscow and Washington’s collaboration in Syria is an indicator, this will not be the first instance of states putting aside their larger power struggles in favour of limited cooperation.

The trilateral is a move that will deepen India’s diplomatic coordination on Afghanistan. This will be in addition to India’s  existing participation in the International Contact Group on Afghanistan, the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process and more recently the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. With these multiple groups in operation, India could benefit from having a special representative for Afghanistan who can be on top of the game in all these fora.

Other areas of cooperation

Cooperation on the political front finds subdued mention in the trilateral. But this is critical as India and the US can bring together key anti-Taliban provincial leaders. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of articles in the US which have tried to shed some light on such leaders and their role in Afghanistan. Empowering local leaders is a good step and something that needs to be carried out with even greater fervour in order to weaken the Taliban’s political stature. There are indications that some elements associated with the Taliban could be weaned away from using violence. However, the desire to empower provincial leaders is constrained by the fear that Pakistan will extract retribution if anyone deviates from the line that it has charted. The trilateral can be a way for India and the US to explore cooperation on this front.

A lot can be done when it comes trade as well. India, already accounting for a fifth of all trade, offers enormous potential for Afghan exports but the boost that it could give the Afghan economy is thwarted by Pakistani reluctance to allow transit trade. There are suggestions that, unless there is reciprocity, Afghanistan could move to prevent Pakistani exports to Central Asia.

Finally, a word of caution

Pakistan will not keep quiet as we keep agglomerating with like-minded states. The phantom of Daesh (ISIS) could emerge soon. Some places in Pakistan are already reporting ISIS presence on Pakistani soil. This raises that dangerous possibility of misattributing terrorist incidents in India or Afghanistan to ISIS instead of jihadi outfits such as LeT or the Taliban respectively. In such a hypothetical yet likely situation, Pakistan will probably claim an inability to control the group and if the US concurs with this version of things, it will likely launch another bailout operation for Pakistan, thus resetting the cycle of political relations in the region. We need to guard against this all too familiar and vicious cycle.

For its part, India needs to put internal systems in place – a joint consultative mechanism between the intelligence agencies, the foreign office, the military and the National Security Council System (NSCS); it will need to renew its focus on south Afghanistan and prepare the groundwork for a possible dialogue with acceptable elements within the Taliban. It is important to follow through with the gains made in Afghanistan to make the trilateral a meaningful forum.

Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane are with the Geo-strategy Programme at the Takshashila Institution.