Extracting Meaning From Word Salads: Two Takeaways From UNSC Meeting On Afghanistan

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Aug 18, 2021 04:21 PM +05:30 IST
Extracting Meaning From Word Salads: Two Takeaways From UNSC Meeting On Afghanistan TS Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN
  • One, the Taliban’s takeover is a fait accompli; they are here to stay, for now.

    Two, since Russia and China’s interests are temporarily aligned, on the point of getting America out of Asia, India will have to weigh her options independently.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met in New York on 16 August, to discuss the rapidly-changing situation in Afghanistan. It was chaired by TS Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN, since India holds the presidency of the council this month.

Some observers expected that the meeting would offer a measure of guidance to the global community, on how the Taliban might be checked; specifically, their rapid surge across Afghanistan, in the wake of a recklessly-abrupt pullout by America in July. Those expectations held good for last week, when the meeting was proposed, and when the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul still controlled a third of the country.

But, by the time the UNSC met, Kabul had fallen, and Ghani had fled Afghanistan. What was the council to discuss then? Would this be one more meaningless exercise in talking for talking’s sake, or worse, in speaking without purpose? After all, the world had grown tired a long time ago, of platitudes being trotted out, to cover both policy failures and independent agendas; not to mention nil chance of any collective effort at reversing this regressive development.

The answer is a firm ‘No!’, because no matter how cynical one may get, the UN remains the principal global forum for the public exercise of diplomacy – particularly by nations with conflicting interests. So to that extent, it is important for us to study the UNSC meeting of 16 August, especially from an Indian standpoint, to see if any clues on the intent, or stance, of other nations may be gleaned.

A total of twelve nations expressed their views on the situation in Afghanistan, plus Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, and a representative of the old, Afghan government, which no longer existed as on 16 August.

For brevity, this piece will focus only on the statements of the five permanent members – America, Russia, France, Britain and China – and India, because that is what is of principal relevance to us; the rest merit little parsing, since they don’t carry strategic weight.

The American representative laid out a catch-all wish list which included human rights, freedoms, access for aid agencies, and, would you believe it, peace in Afghanistan. Such trite sanctimoniousness couldn’t have been more misplaced, especially when it was this same wish list which had guided the Americans’ hand, through twenty long years of a bumbling, fruitless conflict against yet another invisible, invincible foe.

To make matters worse, the lady American representative archly announced that “The United States promises to be generous in resettling Afghans in our own country”. She followed that up with a vague demand to the international community, to do more: “… the time to step up is now”.

Perhaps it would have been better if the Americans hadn’t spoken, or if they did, to have avoided such gallingly patronizing statements. No nation has the right to claim the moral high ground, when it is the root cause of the whole infernal mess in Afghanistan.

The French representative, who spoke next, was slightly more measured in her words, even if her statement, too, was filled with the same, staid banality. “Twenty years of progress must not be wiped out and peace can prevail only if everyone participates”. We know that self-reproach is not a governmental trait, but if a nation officially perceives the last two decades in Afghanistan as progress, then the only real response is a hollow laugh.

The British, though, weren’t laughing. Instead, their representative meekly admitted that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban was a tragedy. Somewhat pragmatically, he hoped that Britain would be able to continue providing aid supplies to Afghanistan, and do what best it could, in conjunction with global relief agencies and other like-minded countries.

This echoed comments by the security and political establishment in London. Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, two Conservative members of parliament who are on important select committees, both implied while speaking live to the BBC, that Britain couldn’t go it alone in Afghanistan. Tugendhat, in fact, added that India’s presidency of the Security Council, during a hectic August, could prove to be crucial.

And that, in a nutshell, was Britain’s gaze into the mirror: a second-rung power sitting awkwardly at the big boys’ table, solely by virtue of their special relationship with America, and beset with a crying need to establish another special relationship in Asia.

That need, however, might not be so easy to accomplish, since the Russians are rather smug right now, after having achieved a significant part of a long-standing objective – getting America and NATO out of Asia. As Vassily Nebeniza, Moscow’s representative in the Security Council meeting, said: “…currently, we believe there is no point in panicking”. Naturally, since they have declared that Russia will recognize the Taliban government, and continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Kabul.

Indeed, Russia is only one of four countries still maintaining missions in Kabul, along with China, Pakistan and Iran. This aspect was driven home when Nebeniza said that Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran could contribute to ensuring a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.

Very pointedly, India was not mentioned. This is a conveniently manufactured Quad-effect, which the Russians have employed to slyly express their displeasure, at India now buying more arms from America than from Russia. It needn’t be blown out of proportion.

This was expected, and Foreign Minister Jaishankar will balance it during his ongoing visit to the United Nations. We got an early hint on 15 August of what to expect, when Jaishankar said that although there was a convergence of Indo-American interests in the east (meaning China), there was a divergence in the west (meaning Pakistan). So, readers shouldn’t be surprised if they hear of new Indian orders for Russian weapon systems in the coming months.

The Chinese statement was surprisingly bland, and largely restricted to the sole security issue of concern to them – fear that the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province would receive a fillip from the flux in Afghanistan. Consequently, the Chinese representative warned that Afghanistan shouldn’t become a safe haven for ‘…terrorist groups such as ISIL/Da’esh, Al-Qaida and ETIM (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement)’ who had posed ‘serious threats to peace and security in the last 20 years’. The reference to ’20 years’ is a not-so-subtle implication that they hold the Americans responsible for the growth of terrorist groups, by an extended intervention in Afghanistan.

None of the speakers made even a passing reference to either the root cause of the Taliban problem in Afghanistan, or its source – Pakistan.

So it was left to India, to try and put matters in perspective. Our representative, TS Tirumurti, made three key points. First, he brought the utility of the Security Council, in its present avatar, into question, by proposing collective action: “It is time for the international community, in particular, this Council, to act and ensure an immediate cessation of violence and contain any possible crisis and mitigate its consequences” Translation: the UNSC will never function effectively until India becomes a permanent member, and if that doesn’t happen, the Council’s relevance will only fade further.

Two, he pointed out what no one else would, ‘that the situation is of particular concern to India as a neighbouring State’. The taking over of Afghanistan by a Taliban, propped up by a Pakistan, who is, in turn, a client state of China, means that the threat to our northern boundary has never been greater.

Three, he said in diplomatese that there would be zero tolerance towards terrorist groups, who seek to use safe havens in Afghanistan as launch pads for their attacks. In addition, Tirumurti advised the Taliban (without naming them) to follow international law.

(The use of this phrase, ‘international law’, rather than the ‘rules-based-order’, which is more commonly used among Western countries and India, may be read as a signal to Russia, who have traditionally contested the latter’s popularization because of multiple legal and strategic implications.)

With that, the meeting ended. So, was there a tangible takeaway? Not really. No plan of action was agreed upon, and there was no mention of the narcotics trade, which is now expected to boom in the Hindu Kush. The press statement which followed was, thus, expectedly anodyne, and filled only with vague hopes. The sole paragraph of merit was one which was inserted in India’s interest:

“The members of the Security Council reaffirmed the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan to ensure the territory of Afghanistan should not be used to threaten or attack any country, and that neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country”

As a statement, it means nothing, since both Pakistan and Taliban will do as they please. Calling an end to violence, without the political will or physical wherewithal, and refusing to recognize the grave new threats to India, which have now emerged in the region, is an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, the meeting does underscore two points:

One, Taliban’s takeover is a fait accompli; they are here to stay, for now, and no one need expect any collective global action against them.

Two, since Russia and China’s interests are temporarily aligned, on the point of getting America out of Asia, India will have to weigh her options independently, as she braces for this new three-and-a-half-front threat.

The broader implications and constraints of that will be detailed in a forthcoming piece.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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