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India’s ‘Silent’ Tango With Taliban

Seema Guha |
If the ‘tough’ Modi government is willing to sit across the table with the Taliban, why should it not do the same with its own people -- Kashmiri separatists and Maoists?
Moscow Meeting Taliban

India has signaled that it wants to tango with the Taliban. By attending Friday’s meeting in Moscow called by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss peace moves in Afghanistan, where Taliban representatives from the Doha office were present, Delhi has sent out a clear message. It is willing to sit on the same table as the Taliban, together with emissaries from Pakistan, China, Iran, the US and the Afghan government-sponsored High Peace Council members.

This is a significant move, considering the Narendra Modi government’s proclaimed position of not talking to terror outfits, whether at home or abroad.  The question is, if the tough-talking Modi government is willing to make the first move to sit across the table with the Taliban, why should it not do the same with its own people?

Why can the government not talk to either the Kashmiri separatists or the Maoist leaders? The violence in Kashmir is unprecedented. Civilians and soldiers are both being killed and  there seems no respite to the blood letting in the valley. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has justifiably made this point in a tweet. Delhi’s strong-arm tactics in Kashmir had yielded no results. It has instead alienated more and more people, especially the young people of Kashmir from the Indian state. If  the government can have a rethink on the Taliban, there is more reason for Modi and his advisers to take a second look at its mindless Kashmir policy. Time for the government to go back to the drawing board and work out a fresh strategy, which includes talks with the separatists. Chances of any move at peace efforts in Kashmir or with the Maoists are dim, considering that national elections are due early next year.

The BJP  a firm believer in a strong government has always projected Prime Minister Modi as a ‘tough’ leader. The numerous barbs on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his so-called ‘soft’ Pakistan policy is well known. It is also a government which celebrates surgical strikes across Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and wants all universities to recognise this important departure from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s policy. Never mind that surgical strikes have been done quietly by previous governments in the past.

Talking to the Taliban is a pragmatic move considering that  the Taliban is here to stay and cannot be defeated militarily. Delhi has taken care not to annoy Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and has taken the decision after consultations with him.

With the Taliban in control of 70% of Afghanistan and in a position to bomb any place, including hotels and government installations at will, even in Kabul, the heavily guarded capital city, a negotiated settlement is the only way out. India has to deal with the Taliban, sooner rather than later.

Delhi will have a calibrated approach, beginning with what External Affairs Ministry officials describe as “non-official’’ representation in Moscow, to gradually grading it up according to how the situation evolves. India’s two representatives to Moscow are retired ambassadors familiar with the region.  India’s former Envoy to  Kabul, Amar Sinha, and former High Commissioner to Islamabad, TCA Raghavan. The two may be silent observers, but will certainly get the opportunity to meet the Taliban representatives and make formal contact. 

The Moscow meeting was mainly symbolic, signaling Russia’s desire to be a player in Afghanistan. The US sent in an official from its embassy in Moscow for the meet.

It will be interesting to see how Pakistan’s powerful military will see this move by India to engage the Taliban. The Taliban was nurtured and put in place by Pakistan to ensure that it gained strategic depth in Afghanistan and kept arch enemy, India, out of its backyard. Pakistan is the principle player in Afghanistan and all countries, including the US, know that without the cooperation of the PakistanArmy, which anyway calls the shots on the country’ foreign policy, the peace move cannot make progress.

Pakistan’s aim is to ensure that in any political settlement hammered out in Afghanistan, the pro-Pakistan Taliban calls the shots. Pakistan will certainly not want India to get close to the Taliban at any cost. Though in the past, India’s ties with Afghanistan were excellent, after the Russian troops occupied Afghanistan, India was hated. The Mujahideen fighters armed by the US, and helped by the Pakistan Army, had no truck with India. It was only after the Taliban took over, that India together with Russia and Iran supported the Northern Alliance, which was pitted against Mullah Omar and his people. The hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu took place during this time. Delhi negotiated with the Taliban to free the passengers and in return was forced to free five terrorists. India’s then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had to carry the wanted men in his plane to Kandahar for the release.

But things changed quickly after the US and NATO troops threw out the Taliban from Kabul and launched the ‘war on terror’. India kept a low profile and cemented strong ties with the Hamid Karzai government. Since then, there was a dramatic change in India’s profile in Afghanistan. By taking on development projects, most of which touched the lives of ordinary Afghans, India became one of the most popular countries in Afghanistan. Besides its embassy in Kabul, India re-opened consulates in Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, much to the consternation of Pakistan.

The Haqqani network of the Taliban, known to be close to Pakistan’s spy agency the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), attacked Indian interests several times in Afghanistan. The Indian defence attaché as well as an India Foreign Service officer were killed in a car bomb attack in the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008.

Considering Pakistan’s fear of Indian engagement in Afghanistan, Islamabad will try to make sure that Delhi’s  relationship with the Taliban does not progress beyond a point.

So far, beyond a symbolic sitting together at a conference table, nothing has happened. It is a cautious first step. No one can foretell what happens in Afghanistan next, even as regional powers, as well as the US, want the long civil war in the war-torn country to end.  

(Seema Guha is a senior journalist who has been covering foreign policy for decades. The views expressed are personal).

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