The world powers appear to be making a major diplomatic push to reach an agreement with the Taliban—which have direct control over 19 percent of the districts in Afghanistan— before the final decision on the withdrawal of American troops.
Over the last weeks, two crucial meetings with Taliban have been announced— first by Russia and second by the US, with both seeking to break the deadlock over the Afghanistan peace process. This has pushed New Delhi to finally face the challenge of taking an early decision on whether or not it should directly engage with the Taliban.
Earlier this month, the US put forth a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement before the Taliban and the Afghanistan government, proposing a transitional government that would include the Taliban. This proposal has found many supporters in the Indian administration and experts including members of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Till now, India has chosen to watch from afar the hectic manoeuvres by world powers holding talks with the Taliban in an effort to hammer out the peace deal in the trouble-ridden country. Moving ahead with its conventional diplomatic strategy, India continues to deeply engage with the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghanistan government, approving more development projects besides investing over $3 billion in Afghanistan so far.
However, days after India opted to stay out of the conference among the highest-level delegates of the Taliban and Afghan government with representatives of Washington, Pakistan and China, New Delhi has been exhibiting a slight shift in its attitude.
Ram Madhav, a top BJP leader, in a recent opinion piece, suggested the Narendra Modi government has to shun the “romantic notion that there cannot be any ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban”.
"India and Russia have had their deliberations on Afghanistan when Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Earlier as well, Russia had clarified that the meeting in Moscow on Afghanistan was aimed at including those having direct relations or had opened channels of talk with the Taliban. There are going to be multiple channels around the Afghan issue in the time to come, and there are going to be no easy solutions,” Kabir Taneja, Fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation and author of 'The ISIS Peril' told Sputnik.
Earlier this month, this issue had generated lots of uproar in India after a media report suggested that Moscow had intentionally sidelined New Delhi from the Afghanistan conference held on 18 March. However, the accusation was refuted by the Russian embassy in New Delhi.
The Russian Embassy, while strongly contesting the narrative that New Delhi had been sidelined by Moscow in the Afghan peace process, clarified that “India plays a very important role in Afghanistan, and its eventual, deeper involvement in dedicated dialogue formats is natural.”
“As for India’s inclusion in the Afghan peace process, Pakistan supports regional approaches to solving the conflict in Afghanistan,” Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson clarified on 12 March.
There were also speculations that the active participation of India in the QUAD (comprised of India, the US, Australia and Japan) which some consider as an anti-China alliance, was the main reason behind Russia’s decision to not invite the Indian delegation to the Moscow conference on the Afghanistan peace process. However, another expert has seconded the claim that it was India’s decision to stay out of the negotiations that would directly involve the Taliban.
“India’s strategic relations with Russia are not based on any speculative projection. It, however, is based on a time-tested approach and not subject to political vicissitudes. New Delhi and Moscow are deeply committed to strengthen the notion of strategic autonomy while addressing the bilateral, regional and global issue,” Sandeep Tripathi, Assistant Professor and Head of Centre for International Politics and Law, GLA University, Mathura told Sputnik.
Will India Ever Come to the Table with the Taliban?
Ram Madhav, in his opinion piece, notes that there is a new non-Arab Islamic arc that is emerging in India’s neighbourhood which comprises Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. “A Taliban regime in Afghanistan would naturally become a member of that arc,” Madhav wrote, adding that while America's role in the region is a on decrease, China will play an active role in Afghanistan.
Despite New Delhi remaining firm on its stand of only supporting a lasting political settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process, the Taliban has time and again exhibited the desire to work with India.
The first such strong indication came last May, when the Taliban toed New Delhi’s line on Kashmir and issued a strong statement saying Kashmir was an “internal matter” for India. “The statement published in the media about Taliban joining Jihad in Kashmir is wrong…. The policy of the Islamic Emirate is clear that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” Suhail Shaheen, the spokesperson for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the political wing of Taliban calls itself, had tweeted on 18 May 2020.
On 20 February this year, the Taliban pledged in Ashkhabad to fully support the 1,814-kilometre Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline that will transfer 33 billion cubic feet of natural gas from Turkmenistan to energy hungry Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The ambitious $10-billion project has been riddled with problems, mainly security issues in Afghanistan, for years.
— Suhail Shaheen. محمد سهیل شاهین (@suhailshaheen1) February 19, 2021
Now it will be worth watching whether the Narendra Modi government departs from its original stand and agrees to send its diplomat to a meeting proposed by the US which is expected to take place in the first half of April in Istanbul.
“Regional and international stakeholders have different interests, and getting everyone together to commit to a single-agenda plan for peace in Afghanistan will take much more than just one meeting in Moscow. India has its ear to the ground on Afghanistan, but it will have to make a significant move in the near future to make sure its own interests are represented on the various tables. How and what that move will look like from New Delhi we will have to wait and watch," Kabir Taneja, Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation underlined.
The next discussion on the issue will come up during Afghanistan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar's visit to Delhi next week.