NEW DELHI: China may attend the NSA-level meeting on Afghanistan, chaired by India, virtually this week after close ally Pakistan declined New Delhi’s invitation to the regional conference to discuss the future of the country.

The meet will be hosted by India's National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and is the first to be hosted by India. Before this, two NSA-level meetings have been held in Iran in September 2018 and December 2019. The third meeting that was slated to be held last year in India could not be organized due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The conference is aimed at underlining a regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan, including recognition of the Taliban administration. Given the precarious state of the Afghan economy and the ongoing food crisis in the country, the meet may also consider sending in emergency food supplies.

The meeting will affirm that “India has (a) legitimate security interest in Afghanistan," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “This is an attempt to counter Pakistan’s efforts to exclude us (India)," said Sibal while adding that the move also comes in the wake of other countries, such as China and Russia, seeking to discuss the future of Afghanistan without considering India as a central part of this process.

India has played a key role in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 when US-led international troops were present in the country. New Delhi had been involved in the construction of key infrastructure projects in the country including the parliament building and the Salma dam investing $3 billion in various reconstruction activities. With the Pakistan-backed Taliban taking over Kabul on 15 August, New Delhi pulled out its diplomats from the country.

In what could be taken as a sign of Pakistan’s growing influence over Afghanistan, news reports over the weekend said that Afghanistan’s interim foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was expected to visit Pakistan in the coming days as part of efforts by the two sides to reset their ties. Muttaqi was invited last month by Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during his visit to Kabul.

China’s presence at the conference is being keenly watched for several reasons. Beijing’s non-participation will send a negative signal, fuelling apprehensions that the “China-Pakistan axis is working openly against us," Sibal said.

Pakistan and China are close allies, known for taking concerted measures against the interests of New Delhi. Beijing’s absence will also serve to indicate a “serious gap developing between India and China" following the tensions on the border that first surfaced in May 2020, Sibal said.

New Delhi has in recent months reached out to the group, holding at least two meetings with members of the Taliban. Other countries in the region including the Central Asian Republics, Iran and Russia also have been in touch with the Taliban. While some deliberations on Afghanistan’s future have included New Delhi, others have not . This is seen as a result of Pakistan wielding its influence in keeping India out of such talks given the tense relations between the two countries. New Delhi has accused Islamabad of supporting anti-India terrorist groups, but the latter has denied.

New Delhi has several concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan, with the primary concern being that Afghan territory should not be used for activities against countries in the region. In the past, anti-India terrorist groups had been allowed to run camps by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

India has been calling for an “inclusive" administration in Afghanistan that allows representation of women and minorities to preserve the socio-economic gains of the past two decades and restricts the spread of radical ideology.