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Delhi in tizzy over US, Taliban talks in Kabul

The developments have been viewed with scepticism in New Delhi, where there is a growing belief that such moves would only embolden the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan’s security establishment, people familiar with developments said.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2019 17:53 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The external affairs ministry and the security establishment are keeping a close eye on discussions between US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban leadership, in which the elected government in Kabul has so far had no role.(AFP/Representative Image)

The breakneck pace of developments in talks between the US and the Taliban has had Indian’s foreign policy establishment scrambling to assess its options in war-torn Afghanistan, especially in the event of a speedy withdrawal of American troops.

The external affairs ministry and the security establishment are keeping a close eye on discussions between US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban leadership, in which the elected Afghan government has so far had no role.

Following six days of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, Khalilzad told The New York Times the two sides had agreed on the draft framework of a deal whereby the militants will guarantee Afghan territory is not used by terror groups ahead of the complete pullout of US troops.

The developments have been viewed with scepticism in New Delhi, where there is a growing belief that such moves will only embolden the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan’s security establishment, people familiar with developments said.

“While players like Russia and China would like to see the US troop presence in Afghanistan end eventually, no one except the Pakistanis will be happy with a situation where the Taliban dominate the set-up in Kabul,” said a person who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“In the current circumstances, no one wants to deal with the messy situation that will surely follow any hasty withdrawal of American forces,” said a second person, who too spoke on condition of anonymity.

The people quoted above pointed to the manner in which President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been completely shut out of negotiations, with the Taliban refusing to meet Afghan officials. India has tied its position on the talks process to that of the Afghan government, calling for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue.

They also pointed to the need for caution expressed by US officials themselves, especially CIA chief Gina Haspel’s remarks during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that a “very robust monitoring regime” will be necessary under a potential accord to “maintain pressure on the terrorist groups”.

A senior member of the Afghan security establishment, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban are cooperating with the Islamic State-Khorasan “where their interests align”. The official added, “The Islamic State-Khorasan is just a rebranding of more radical elements of the Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, that are an insurance policy for Pakistan.”

The Afghan official indicated Kabul is looking to New Delhi to articulate the Afghan government’s concerns about the talks as India is “playing a leading role in the region as it reorganises itself”.

There is also a debate on whether India should engage the Taliban, especially in the wake of New Delhi’s decision to participate in a “non-official” capacity in the Moscow Format talks in November.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said India supports efforts that can achieve an inclusive political settlement. “In this context, it is important that the presidential election in Afghanistan takes place as per the schedule...We will participate in all formats of talks which could bring about peace and security in that region,” he added.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, indicated India’s options were limited as the US-Taliban talks weren’t about peace. “These are talks aimed at a flight from Afghanistan. The US has lost interest, lost purpose and lost the will to fight and is looking for a way to escape,” he said.

“The US is only seeking verbal guarantees that al-Qaeda and IS won’t get a foothold in Afghanistan and the country shouldn’t be a haven for anti-US terrorists,” he added.

First Published: Jan 30, 2019 22:51 IST