Above: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov (centre) and the Taliban delegation at peace talks in Moscow/Photo: twitter
Even though India is not a principal player in Afghanistan, its reaching out to this terror outfit is a positive sign as talks are the only way to end 17 years of civil war in that battered country
By Seema Guha
Bowing to the inevitable, India has broken its self-imposed red line on talking to the Taliban, a terror outfit responsible for several attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan. By attending the Moscow peace talks called recently by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, where a delegation from the Taliban office in Doha was also present, Delhi has taken a tentative first step towards a future relationship with the group.
India, a close friend of the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, has taken care to ensure that it does not ruffle Kabul. Two former Indian diplomats, both familiar with the region, were dispatched after consultations with Afghanistan. President Ghani himself sent members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, set up by former president Hamid Karzai at a time when hopes for talks were bright. Nothing came of it and no one expected a result.
However, in Moscow, both Afghan delegations—the Talibs and members of the peace group—flanked Lavrov at the conference table, which was a good beginning. India, Iran, Pakistan, a junior US diplomat, China and a clutch of other diplomats were present. For Russia, it was to signal that it continues to be a player in the region. The meeting was largely symbolic, but no one expected more than that. The Taliban has made it plain that it will not negotiate with the Ghani government as it does not recognise it. It wants direct talks with the US on the one-point agenda of getting all American forces out of Afghanistan.
The winner in all this is the Taliban. From being a terror outfit shunned by all but Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, more and more nations are willing to accept it. “With participation in the meeting, the international status of the Islamic Emirate will be strengthened even further,” Taliban envoy Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai declared.
Delhi is resorting to semantics to explain its decision to send its representatives to Moscow. “Our participation at the meeting will be at the non-official level,” said Raveesh Kumar, MEA spokesman. One supposes he meant that both the officials were retired ambassadors. Amar Sinha was a former envoy to Kabul, while TCA Raghavan was a high commissioner to Pakistan. Their mandate was to listen in to the conversation around the table and not intervene. However, there is no doubt that the two would have spoken to the Taliban group and built up first formal contacts to be used later, depending on how the ground situation evolves. This is a pragmatic move as talks with the Taliban are the only way for an end to 17 years of civil war which has battered Afghanistan.
Some enthusiasts in Delhi want the government to name a special envoy for Afghanistan as other countries have done. However, it is somewhat premature for such a move considering that Delhi is not a principal player in that country. However, regional players such as Russia, Iran and China have, over the years, begun engagement with the Taliban, apart from the government of Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan who are the prime movers.
With the Taliban gaining ground by the day and the Ghani government in no position to stop its advances, there is now added urgency in holding talks. US President Donald Trump is keen to end a war which has dragged on for several decades and has nothing to show for all the soldiers killed and billions poured into the country. He wants to leave as soon as a face-saving agreement is worked out.
Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American and a former ambassador to Kabul, was appointed as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation by Trump. He has held talks with the Taliban in Qatar, and is likely to travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UAE again to hammer out a political solution. Khalilzad is disliked in Pakistan and Islamabad was disappointed that he was leading the peace efforts.
Pakistan will be watching every move of India’s after the Moscow talks. It is well-known that Islamabad is opposed to India’s growing footprints in Afghanistan. Islamabad charges Delhi of using its consulates in Afghanistan to destabilise Balochistan. With the memory of East Pakistan still fresh, the establishment fears that India can one day attempt a similar move in Balochistan. However far-fetched this may appear to Delhi, it is a concern in Rawalpindi.
Pakistan is also unhappy over India’s close ties with both the Karzai and Ghani governments. Delhi has done projects which touch the lives of ordinary people. India is immensely popular in Afghanistan. This is a major concern for Pakistan. It will use all its influence with the Taliban to make sure that in any future political settlement, an anti-India government is installed.
As former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh told India Legal: “Pakistan’s one-point agenda in Afghanistan is to ensure that a future government in Kabul is hostile to India.” The Pakistan army and its spy agency, the ISI, had in the past used the Haqqani network of the Taliban to target Indian interests in Afghanistan. In 2008, an Indian defense attaché and a young foreign service officer were killed during the attack on the mission in Kabul. Altogether, 58 people were killed in that suicide attack. In 2009, there was another terror strike on the embassy, though no Indians were killed. Around 17 Afghans lost their lives in it.
Pakistan’s role will be crucial to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. Naturally, it will ensure that its own entrenched interests are not hurt in any future political settlement. The Taliban was, after all, the creation of Pakistan. Making peace with it is not easy. Whether Khalilzad can pull a rabbit out of his hat and get an agreement signed is uncertain.
Meanwhile, India’s policy in Afghanistan is being endorsed by former diplomats. “India has done well with its Afghan policy. It was time to shift focus and engage with the Taliban, keeping Kabul in the loop. The government has done just that,” said Mansingh. “We are not a major player in Afghanistan and it is not in our interest to be one,” he added.
So for now, a tentative outreach to the Taliban is the right policy as an insurance for the future.