Indian team visits Kabul for talks with Taliban
India, like other countries, has not recognised the Taliban setup in Afghanistan, though there have been both backchannel contacts and meetings with the group in third countries such as Qatar.
India has sent a team led by the external affairs ministry’s point-person on Afghanistan to Kabul for meetings with senior members of the Taliban and to oversee humanitarian relief efforts, the first such visit since the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government last August.
India, like other countries, has not recognised the Taliban setup in Afghanistan, though there have been both backchannel contacts and meetings with the group in third countries such as Qatar. India ended its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and evacuated thousands of nationals from the war-torn country in civilian and military flights.
The team, led by joint secretary JP Singh, who heads the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk in the external affairs ministry, will “meet the senior members of the Taliban and hold discussions on India’s humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan” while in Kabul, the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The team will oversee the delivery of India’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and meet representatives of international organisations involved in distribution of aid. The team is also expected to visit various places where Indian programmes and projects are being implemented.
People familiar with the matter said the visit, which was not announced in advance, will be short in duration and didn’t materialise “out of the blue” – an indication that considerable planning had gone into the effort. It is understood that the Taliban have provided security guarantees for the travel by the Indian team.
It was not immediately clear which Taliban leaders the Indian team will meet, or the locations it will visit to see India-backed development projects.
When external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi was asked for details of the visit and the Indian team at a weekly media briefing, he declined to go into specifics. He also sought to dispel speculation linking the visit to the possible resumption of a diplomatic presence in Kabul.
“You are reading far too much into this visit. This visit is about humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan,” Bagchi said.
“The ongoing visit is to oversee the delivery of the assistance and we will have discussions with the relevant people…India has historical and civilisational ties with the Afghan people, this will continue to guide our approach to Afghanistan,” he added.
A Taliban spokesman tweeted that Singh’s meeting with the regime’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi focused on diplomatic relations, bilateral trade and humanitarian aid. Muttaqi described the first visit from the Indian side to Kabul as a “good beginning in ties between the two countries”.
Muttaqi expressed gratitude for the Indian humanitarian and medical assistance and called for the resumption of India’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, the resumption of projects by India, and the provision of consular services to Afghans, especially Afghan students and patients.
The Indian team also visited a children’s hospital, a school and a power plant built with Indian assistance in Kabul and nearby areas.
Following the Taliban takeover last August, India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met top Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai at the Indian embassy in Doha in September 2021 – the first officially acknowledged meeting between the two sides in recent years.
However, even before the Taliban takeover, the two sides opened channels of communication and there were several contacts between the Indian side and top Taliban leaders such as Stanekzai and Abdul Ghani Baradar in third countries. These contacts were largely driven by Indian security officials.
Though India shuttered its embassy in Kabul in August 2021 and its consulates in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif in the months and years before the Taliban takeover, the country has responded to the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people, both due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic collapse that followed the ouster of the elected civilian government.
Bagchi said India had withdrawn all Indian staff from Kabul because of the deteriorating security situation, and local Afghan staff were playing a role in the upkeep of the mission and delivery of humanitarian aid.
Former ambassador Vivek Katju, who served as the Indian envoy to Kabul during 2002-05, welcomed the visit by the Indian team. “At long last, we have taken a sensible step. I hope this will lead to a permanent Indian presence in Kabul at a suitable level,” he said.
India has dispatched several shipments of humanitarian aid consisting of 20,000 tonne of wheat, 13 tonne of medicines, 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines and winter clothing. It has pledged to send a total of 50,000 tonnes of wheat though deliveries have been delayed because of complications created by Pakistani authorities while granting access to land routes for ferrying supplies.
The Indian consignments were handed over to the Indira Gandhi children’s hospital in Kabul and UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP). India is in the process of shipping more medical assistance and food grains to Afghanistan.
The external affairs ministry emphasised that the humanitarian aid was part of India’s developmental partnership with “Afghan brethren”, and included one million doses of India-made Covaxin vaccines gifted to Iran to administer to Afghan refugees. India has also assisted UNICEF by supplying almost 60 million doses of polio vaccines and two tonnes of essential medicines.
“India has historical and civilisational ties with the Afghan people and these longstanding linkages will continue to guide our approach,” the ministry said.
India’s development and humanitarian assistance has received widespread appreciation in Afghanistan, including from the Taliban leadership, which has noted the importance of maintaining ties with New Delhi.
In a signal of New Delhi’s continuing commitment to the war-torn country, India allocated ₹200 crore as aid for Afghanistan in its budget for 2022-23. The amount will be used to meet expenses related to projects that India has been implementing in Afghanistan, to provide relief materials and humanitarian assistance and to cover existing schemes such as scholarships for Afghan students.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, India emerged as the largest regional donor for the country with pledges of almost $3 billion. India has executed several major infrastructure projects, including the new parliament building, the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram highway and the $290-million Friendship Dam. However, India-funded projects came to a standstill after the Taliban takeover.