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India plans ‘direct communication’ with Taliban as world prepares for life after US pullout

New Delhi believes as a key stakeholder in the region it has to ensure that the violence stops and so speaking to the Taliban is key.

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New Delhi: India is planning to activate direct channels of communication with the Taliban as the possibility of the Islamist group soon taking the centre stage in mainstream politics in Kabul is appearing to be an eventuality now, ThePrint has learnt.

The move comes as countries such as the US and the UK have already begun to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban.

While India has assured support to the Ashraf Ghani government for peace and stability in Afghanistan as the Taliban has gone on an offensive, the Narendra Modi government believes it should begin to establish a network of contacts with those in the Taliban who sit in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and those who see New Delhi as their “partner” for development.

For this, India is now banking on Russia, which is planning on playing a greater role along with Iran. New Delhi is looking to be part of that arrangement even if it means supporting a transition government in Kabul, which looks imminent there after the US troops leave by 31 August.

Russia and India are believed to have held extensive talks on what stance regional partners will be taking now that violence in Afghanistan has surged and it has become all the more significant to bring in the Taliban as interlocutors. This is because the message then will “trickle down” to their commanders who are fighting the Afghan government forces, sources said.

According to a source, the government is planning to speak to those Taliban leaders with whom India had been engaging ever since External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar participated in the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha in September 2020.

Since the war began in Afghanistan two decades ago, India has invested about $3 billion in the development of the country.

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‘Take a position and look forward’

The Taliban is well aware and has also communicated to India that it sees a partner in New Delhi that will help it in the development of Afghanistan once the US exits, the source added.

Sources said while Kabul is busy managing the deteriorating internal security situation due to the Taliban’s massive violence, it wants India to reach out to the group’s interlocutors in Doha.

The Afghan government has also been pushing India to directly speak to those Taliban leaders who believe in the process of reconciliation.

The sources said India had been “indirectly engaging” with the key negotiators of the Taliban even before September 2020. 

In April 2020, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen was invited to speak at an event organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council (GCTC), where he said once the Taliban comes to power it will focus on prosperity if wants to have “relations” with the neighbouring countries and beyond.

“India has to now take a position and look forward. It should do whatever it can to see that a transition takes place and that the senseless violence there stops because ultimately New Delhi has always believed in people-to-people links when it comes to Afghanistan and thus it should not tolerate such violence,” said M.K. Bhadrakumar, a veteran diplomat who was a key interlocutor for India in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Bhadrakumar, who is also India’s former envoy to Turkey, told ThePrint, “By doing this itself, the Taliban will pick up the signals. We should take a position as a responsible regional stakeholder.”

Meanwhile, the talks in Doha between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban leaders came to an end Sunday.

Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s key peace and reconciliation leader said, “The solution to the 43 years of crisis in Afghanistan is through constructive and meaningful talks and a political settlement.”

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Role of Central Asian countries

While India at one point believed that Pakistan will facilitate a dialogue via backchannel talks, it will not be feasible anymore considering the fact that the talks have not yielded “any desired outcome” and ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have come to an all-time low, said a source.

According to sources, the Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, have now assured India that they will help New Delhi in establishing links with the Taliban as they also believe that Kabul will soon see a transition government coming in there.

Last week, EAM S. Jaishankar was on a back-to-back trip to Dushanbe and Tashkent and held a plethora of meetings with key leaders of Central Asian countries, which are now also waking up to the reality that the Taliban will soon come to power in Afghanistan. 

During his trip, Jaishankar met the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, along with the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Kazakhstan, and the Uzbek prime minister.

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Deteriorating ties between Islamabad and Kabul

Meanwhile, ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan further deteriorated with Kabul and Islamabad recalling their respective ambassadors from each other’s countries, in the aftermath of the kidnapping of the daughter of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan last week.

While Pakistan has called the incident “unfortunate and regrettable”, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Mansoor Ahmad Khan reportedly left Kabul Monday owing to the growing tensions between the two countries.

Today’s Taliban is different, say experts

Zafar Sareshwala, GCTC board member and former chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, said: “We have a stake in Afghanistan and hence we should speak to the Taliban irrespective of whether we have a dialogue with Pakistan or not. Today’s Taliban is much easier to deal with and they also know that India is an important stakeholder in this entire process and in the development of Afghanistan. We should openly deal with them.”

He added, “Now that the US, the UK have also begun to recognise the Taliban, India has no reason left to shy away from engaging with them. Now they will not be supporting terrorism and they realise the mistake they did by giving shelter to Osama bin Laden. Their focus now is the development of Afghanistan.”

While the US had entered into a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, the UK said earlier this month it will work with the Islamist group if it comes to power.

“Of all the regional actors, India has the highest stakes, no matter the trajectory of future developments — and especially because the most likely endgame is a withdrawal of US forces that boosts the Taliban and, by extension, strengthens Pakistan… A Transition Government is almost a certainty given the growing domestic and the international consensus that President Ghani should step down” said a report by the Observer Research Foundation.

The US has now also announced a Quad, or a quadrilateral dialogue platform, with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, aimed at enhancing regional connectivity.

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