India keeps close watch on US dialogue with Afghan militants
India is keeping a close watch on counterterror guarantees the US is discussing with the Afghan militants because operatives from Pakistan-backed terror groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) continue to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, people familiar with the developments have said.
The US talks come at a time when key players such as China and Russia have stepped up consultations on the situation in Afghanistan with India, which has legitimate security interests in the war-torn country since instability could give a fillip to the activities of JeM and LeT, the people said.
Even as India continued to engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders in Afghanistan — including President Ashraf Ghani’s government, regional and opposition leaders, and representatives of ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — China’s special envoy on Afghan affairs, Deng Xijun, made a quiet visit to New Delhi last week for discussions on the peace and reconciliation efforts.
“When there were ungoverned spaces during 1996-2001 when the Taliban were in power, groups such as LeT and JeM were able to set up camps and train in Afghanistan. During the assault on Ghazni city last August, there were reports of JeM and LeT elements fighting with the Taliban,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“India has legitimate security interests because the emergence of similar ungoverned spaces can boost the activities of such groups,” the official added.
LeT has been responsible for multiple strikes in India, including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, and JeM, which has stepped up its activities in Kashmir in recent years, claimed responsibility for the February 14 suicide attack in Pulwama.
The Indian side has noted that talks between the Taliban and the US special representative on Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, have focused on counterterror guarantees that Afghan soil won’t be used by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The UN’s 1267 Sanctions Committee has already listed JeM and LeT as al-Qaeda affiliates and any counterterrorism guarantees agreed on by the two sides will apply to these Pakistan-based groups, the people cited above said.
Though there are no numbers for Pakistani terrorists currently active in Afghanistan, the people said it is believed that scores of them are fighting alongside the Taliban. When Afghan troops ended the siege of Ghazni last August, Afghan officials said some 70 Pakistani fighters were among the 400 terrorists killed.
More recently, Afghan defence minister, Asadullah Khalid, said an assault on one of the country’s largest military bases in March, which killed 26 troops, was jointly carried out by Taliban and JeM.
The growing engagement between India and regional players is also an outcome of India’s stake in the development of Afghanistan over the years, the people said. New Delhi has pledged $3 billion in aid and created infrastructure, transport links and power transmission lines that has earned it goodwill among the Afghan people.
India’s position that any deal with the Taliban shouldn’t undo the gains made by Afghanistan over the past 18 years — including the democratic set-up and structures, and rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups — is finding greater resonance with Russia, China, Iran, the US and the European Union, they said.
The other countries are also veering around to India’s stance that the Ashraf Ghani government must be kept in the loop, the people added. “The US statement after Khalilzad’s visit to New Delhi spoke about preserving and building on the gains of 18 years. This shows others agree with our position,” an official said.
Beijing, the people said, was even open to the idea of expanding the existing trilateral grouping of China-Russia-US to include India, and special envoy, Deng Xijun, had acknowledged India’s “positive role” in Afghanistan.
At the same time, several countries are joining hands with India to implement projects in Afghanistan. After jointly training Afghan diplomats last year, China and India have decided to expand the programme to include police and civil servants this year. India and Japan are jointly implementing an agricultural development project while India and Australia are implementing a programme for the mining sector devised by the Central Institute of Mining in Dhanbad, the people said.