New Delhi: Afghanistan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar’s visit to India Monday assumes considerable significance in the light of the Joe Biden-led US administration’s fresh approach to the Taliban peace talks, which includes a larger role for New Delhi.
Strategic and diplomatic sources told ThePrint that hectic talks and negotiations have been underway to bring long-lasting peace to war-torn Afghanistan, from where the US intends to withdraw its troops by 1 May, as originally decided under the previous administration headed by Donald Trump. However, Washington is yet to clearly spell out its Afghanistan strategy.
On his visit to India, Atmar will not only meet his counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, but is also expected to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The official itinerary, though, has not yet been announced.
Critical talking points
According to the sources, the visit will be crucial for several reasons.
First, the letter written by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this month made it clear that the US would like to see the establishment of an interim government that will essentially bring the Taliban representatives at par with the elected government.
Such a move has been vehemently opposed by Ghani. “Be assured that as long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind,” Ghani had reportedly said.
In his meetings with senior Indian officials, Atmar will be carrying the same message, and will seek to garner New Delhi’s support in resisting Washington’s push for setting up a provisional government, sources told ThePrint.
Blinken, in his letter, called for a meeting of foreign ministers from the US, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and China under the aegis of the UN, thereby making New Delhi a direct stakeholder in the Taliban peace deal.
Second, apart from giving India a rundown on what’s happening in the peace talks, Atmar will also try to ascertain what the Modi government has decided on the Biden administration’s approach to the Taliban peace deal, as well as intra-Afghan talks, sources added.
The intra-Afghan talks, a dialogue between the Ghani government and the Taliban, finally took off in Doha on 12 September 2020.
Meanwhile, a meeting of the ‘extended troika’ on peaceful settlement in Afghanistan took place on 18 March — hosted by Russia and also comprising representatives of the US, China and Pakistan — that focussed on the progress being made in the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha, Qatar.
The two key takeaways from the meeting were that all parties unanimously stated they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate, run by the Taliban, and that it should reduce violence significantly by not resorting to a ‘Spring Offensive’.
Jaishankar and Atmar had last spoken on 10 January over a phone call to ascertain the progress made in the intra-Afghan talks, which was right before the Biden administration assumed charge.
Earlier this month, Jaishankar also held a long conversation with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad to understand what will be the US’ Afghanistan strategy.
India has, in the past year, seen several high-level visits from Afghanistan, from Abdul Rashid Dostum, former vice-president of Afghanistan, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairperson of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, and senior Afghan politician Ata Mohammad Noor.
This Saturday, Jaishankar also met with the new US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, where they assessed the ongoing Taliban peace talks. Austin left New Delhi Sunday and made a stop in Afghanistan before heading back to the US.
Continuing with Trump’s plan
Speaking to ThePrint, veteran diplomat and former Indian envoy to Kabul, Rakesh Sood, said Atmar could share details of the diplomatic activity around the peace deal with India during his visit.
“Foreign Minister Atmar’s visit is significant as there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity and he will be able to share this with Indian authorities. Secretary Blinken’s letter to President Ghani and the Peace Plan that has been shared by Khalilzad in Kabul and Doha is important,” Sood said.
“There is continuity with the Trump desire to leave Afghanistan, but there is also the suggestion that the current elected government should make way for a transition government that will include the Taliban,” the former diplomat pointed out.
He added, “The ‘extended troika’ statement that they do not support the return of an Islamic Emirate system is important because Pakistan — that has the maximum influence on Taliban — is also a party to this and Taliban will have to give this serious thought.”
Gautam Mukhopadhaya, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Syria, believes that India’s participation in the peace process is essential for a balanced outcome that tries to reconcile the gulf between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as has been proposed by the US.
“But there are dangers that as the US exits, regional spoilers will play a larger and negative role. A regional process should not be an excuse to dump Afghanistan on the region. The US must remain politically fully engaged behind its commitment to Afghan sovereignty and democracy at home and abroad,” Mukhopadhaya said.
“Unlike most others, India has not sought to cut a deal behind the back of the Islamic Republic. India has been willing to speak to the Taliban as part of a good faith peace process that results in an agreement. This was signalled by its presence and good wishes at the inaugural intra-Afghan talks at Doha last September. Once a process starts, it would be logical,” he added.
Addressing the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan talks that began in Doha on 12 September 2020, Jaishankar had emphasised the need to respect Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, reiterating that the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.
Under the Trump administration, the US had negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to set the stage for the US’s withdrawal from the country, nearly two decades after it sent troops there. The conflict had turned into the longest in American history. At present, there are 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan.
According to this peace deal, US troops are slated to leave Afghanistan completely by 1 May 2021. While President Joe Biden maintains that the US will adhere to the deadline, in an interview with ABC News, he called the process “tough” and said things could get delayed as risks of Taliban taking over large parts of the country emerge.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)