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To A Table Talk For A Fruitful Future…

In what may be seen as a departure from India’s stand on engaging the Taliban, New Delhi – in a non-official capacity – attended talks on the Afghanistan Peace Process in Russia on November 9. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arranged the talks – known as the ‘Moscow format’ – mainly to discuss different aspects of the ongoing peace process. Apart from the Taliban representatives based in Doha, a high-level delegation from the Taliban, a delegation of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and representatives of 12 countries – including Pakistan, China, Iran and India – took part in the meeting.
The Narendra Modi government in New Delhi sent two retired diplomats – Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan – to Moscow as its representatives. While Sinha served as India’s ambassador to Kabul, Raghavan is a senior Indian External Affairs Ministry official dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was also the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.


The Moscow Meeting

Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi on November 10, spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry Raveesh Kumar said: “India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. It will preserve unity and plurality, and also bring security, stability and prosperity to the country. India’s consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan.” Kumar clarified that “our participation at the meeting was at the non-official level”. He asserted that attending the meeting was not talking to the Taliban at all.
According to the political analysts, this is a significant move indeed, considering the Indian government’s proclaimed position of not talking to terror outfits, both at home and abroad. It is to be noted that India had opposed the US’ idea of ‘Good Taliban and Bad Taliban’ in the past. Although the External Affairs Ministry has tried to clarify India’s position on the issue of terrorism, analysts believe that India’s participation in Moscow Talks has signalled that New Delhi wants to tango with the Taliban. With this move, India has made clear that it is ready to sit on the same table as the Taliban and other terror outfits in future.


Talibans in Moscow

The analysts further believe that it’s a calculative move, as a section of Indian diplomats has accepted the fact that the Taliban is here to stay and cannot be defeated militarily. India – which is implementing various development projects in the war-ravaged South Asian nation and has already spent USD 2 billion in various projects there – knows that 70% of Afghanistan is under the control of Taliban and the terror outfit is in a position to bomb any place, including hotels and government installations at will, even in Kabul, the heavily guarded Afghan capital. So, India feels that a negotiated settlement is the only way out. Defence experts, too, opine that India has to deal with the Taliban, sooner rather than later. The Moscow Talks created an opportunity for the two senior Indian diplomats to make a formal contact with the Taliban representatives.
At the same time, the Modi government is well aware of its ties with the top Afghan political leadership. That’s why New Delhi decided not to annoy Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and sent officials to Moscow only after consultations with him.


Taliban

Experts have expressed hope that India’s participation in Moscow Talks will be a game-changer. Now, it will be interesting to see how the powerful Pakistani Army will consider India’s move to engage the Taliban. The Pak Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI, the premier intelligence agency of Pakistan) have nurtured the Taliban in order to gain a strategic depth in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Pak Army and the ISI also encouraged the Haqqani network of the Taliban to attack the Indian interests in Afghanistan several times. The network had killed an Indian defence attaché and a Foreign Service officer near the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008. Experts are of the opinion that India’s latest move will make it difficult for the pro-Pakistan Taliban to call the shots. Of course, Pakistan will not want India to make contacts with the Taliban at any cost, as such a move will not serve Islamabad’s interests in the region. But, it’s up to India to accept the challenge and to overcome it diplomatically.

Even, Kremlin has welcomed India’s decision to participate in the talks, with the Russian Embassy saying in a statement: “We highly regard Indian support in the peace process in Afghanistan and welcome Indian readiness and that of other partner countries in the Moscow format.” The Russians are confident that India’s decision is a significant marker in the Afghan dialogue process.
As of now, it’s just a symbolic sitting together with the Taliban at a conference table and nothing more than that. It’s a cautious first step for India, which would like to keep the Taliban engaged. It’s difficult to predict what happens in Afghanistan next, even as all the parties want the long civil war in the war-torn country to end.

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