Is India not serious about peace in Afghanistan? Why did it send former diplomats and not any official to participate in Moscow-conducted first ever peace talks on Afghanistan in which Taliban were also invited? Representatives from 11 countries, including the US (though at observer level) had recently attended the one-day meet. But India, which has always supported Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled policy, chose to send Amar Sinha, former Secretary (Economic Relations) in the External Affairs Ministry and TCA Raghavan, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan to the meet held on November 9.
As Taliban were also invited to the meet, India wanted to avoid to be seen officially engaging with a forum where the insurgent group whose nexus with the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence is well known, would be present. However, if India at all participated at the meet, it was due to the fact that over the years America, Russia, China and even Afghanistan indicated through words and actions about their readiness to engage with Taliban. Therefore, it appeared to be joining the meet because of some kind of implicit geo-political factors surrounding Afghanistan.
Still, it indicated a shift in India’s position on Afghanistan peace talks—from complete avoidance to share a table with Taliban to accepting the group as an important stakeholder of peace in the war-torn nation. Many experts feel that India should show seriousness to Afghanistan imbroglio and participate actively to resolve the problem of insurgency in the war-torn nation. Russia too has urged India to join actively the next meet on Afghanistan when it will be organised. But New Delhi seems to be plagued by concern regarding Taliban’s activities and its association with Pakistan. In fact, for India, supporting peace process in Afghanistan with Taliban on board means allowing Pakistan to increase its political and strategic footprint in the land locked nation at the cost of New Delhi’s interests in Afghanistan and the Central Asian region.
The Afghanistan government is also not comfortable with Taliban. If Russia could not hold a meet on Afghanistan earlier in September, it was because of the Afghanistan government’s decision to shut the door on any meet where Taliban were involved. Argument given by Kabul was that its participation at the meet would serve no purpose as Taliban continued to disrespect “internationally sanctioned principles and rejected the message of peace and direct negotiations.” This seems to be the reason why Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, when nudged by Russians again, decided to send representatives from the High Peace Council instead of the government to the meet held on November 9. The High Peace Council is a Kabul-based non-government outfit established in 2010 by former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to advance the cause of peace process in the war-torn nation.
However, in the Moscow-held peace talks, Taliban were led by their Qatar-based office member Abbas Stanikzai. Even as they had no problem in getting clicked photographs with members from the Peace Council, they continued to harangue about legitimacy of the Afghanistan Government, the country’s constitution and others. They insisted that they would hold direct talks with the US which had sent its official as an observer to the one-day talks.
Taliban listed several demands, including removal of sanctions, release of detainees, formally allowing it to open an office, stopping of anti-Taliban propaganda, withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The insurgent group’s demands were the same that they have repeated very often. Most of Taliban leaders are still on the UN sanctions list. They have an office in Qatar, but it stands derecognised since 2013.
Taliban’s plea is that with no formal office, they confront challenges in having a formal address required to issue press releases, respond to people’s questions on national and international concerns. Experts say this is a Taliban’ ploy to be recognised as Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with its flag and other symbols depicted as state insignia. Whether Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani government will accept such demand is in the realm of speculation.
Five years ago, President Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai had forced Qatar to shut Taliban office after it was opened with the blessings from the US. American special representative to Pak-Afghanistan region Zalmay Khilzad, a US national of Afghan origin, is said to remain in touch with Taliban. Although Russian officials played a role in convincing the Taliban for joining the first ever peace talks in Moscow, they are said to be wary of Americans’ cooperation on Afghanistan. But for the moment, all eyes are on India and its movement. Experts too feel that India’s Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled proposition on peace process will come under severe test in the coming days. If it again sends retired officials to yet to be announced another meet on Afghanistan that means it will not support the peace process unless its fear regarding Taliban and Pakistan is addressed. Pakistan is the main protector of Taliban and its interests in Afghanistan-is what Indian officials feel.