Taliban talks: MEA merely testing waters with Moscow meeting, New Delhi has time aplenty to evaluate its Afghan position

A rather brief announcement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) indicated what on the surface seems to be a paradigm shift in India’s Afghanistan policy. Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar stated on 8 November that India would participate at a “non-official’ level in talks with the Taliban in Moscow as part of a regional initiative organised by Russia. Translated from diplomatic speak, it means that India will be at the conference table in this round of talks, but will attend further rounds only if it suits its objectives. In simple words, this is as yet, a cautious testing of the waters. New Delhi’s nominees are also retired MEA officials, underlining that Delhi is still far from comfortable with the talks, against which it has long cautioned Russian officials.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

There are some interesting angles to this initiative. First, an earlier effort by Moscow in September had been spurned by the Kabul government, leading to a collapse of the tentative initiative by the Russians. This time however, it seems that Kabul has agreed to attend, with four officials from its High Peace Council, the designated body for negotiations, due to travel to Moscow again in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.

That means someone somewhere has persuaded the Afghans—no prizes for guessing who—that the initiative is worth pursuing, even if it means diluting its stated position that all talks should be “Afghan owned”. This also a time when the US seems to have ramped up its own efforts at negotiating an end to the war, with its Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad just getting into his stride after the October meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha.

Kabul has probably decided that it is as well to join in a dialogue—which it stresses it not an official negotiation but an opening towards peace—unless it wishes to miss the boat entirely, and let everyone negotiate a peace over its head. With Kabul’s nod, New Delhi’s position becomes that much easier to justify. Indeed, it seems that Delhi’s decision has been closely coordinated with Kabul.

The Taliban has also agreed to attend. Its terse statement—which was oddly a mirror image of the Kabul position—merely stated (twice) that the meeting did not imply negotiations at all but was a “talks about talks”. It also notified who was to attend. This is by and large the same team which met with US officials earlier.

Haji Sher Mohammad Stanekzai probably based in Qatar is the ‘official’ head of the team. He was educated in the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. Though part of the Taliban administration, (he’s on the sanctions list) he is far more urbane and comfortable with the media and interlocutors than most of his ‘colleagues’ and therefore somewhat suspect.

The real clout could be from his deputy Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi, a major Taliban commander who was rather mysteriously arrested in Pakistan in 2010 or thereabouts, and released in a prisoner exchange later. He’s the real thing, as hardline as it gets, and with strong links to narcotics smuggling.

Other members of the team also have consistent Pakistan links. Sohail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban “office” was educated in Pakistan, and was later part of the embassy during Taliban rule. So was Shahabuddin Delawar, who was counselor in Peshawar and then ambassador to Pakistan. There’s one name that’s missing from previous delegations. That’s Qari Deen Md Hanif from Badakshan.

Clearly, whoever decided on the delegation is not risking any possible amity between the Russians and the rather amiable Badakshani. Another long time Pakistan ‘friendly’ Haji Md Zahid Ahmadzai also seems to have been replaced with a new face, Mawlawi Zia ur Rehman, a known drug trafficker, and one accustomed to raising money from wealthy individuals in countries like Saudi Arabia. On the face of it, there are no ‘friendlies’ for New Delhi, though all are likely to be ‘known’ to the embassy. No one can operate in Afghanistan even at the most basic level, without having some association with various Taliban entities in a war that has been going on for decades.

Then there is the question of Moscow’s intentions. Remember, the format for talks originally only included Pakistan and China. In February 2017, this was expanded to include India and Iran. By April, this was further expanded to include Central Asian states. The United States, after resolutely refusing to attend the Moscow forum, has now reversed its decision, and will send a representative.

This in itself is a big win for Moscow. Doubtless, this also influenced Delhi’s own decision making. From a rather less noticed meeting point, the Moscow meeting has suddenly acquired the outlines of something that is tangible, with the potential to being a bridge towards sustainable US-Taliban talks as well. Note that in a surprise visit to Kabul, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, seemed to endorse the upcoming talks, even while backing Kabul’s position.

With this background, it would be assumed that Delhi would make its presence more tangible as well. The hitches in this are several. One, Moscow has in recent years been chummying up to Islamabad: supplying it with military equipment and participating in military exercises. The Russia-China-Pakistan initial format of the talks only underlines an emergence of triangular interests among the three, which is hardly likely to be a source of comfort for Delhi.

Two, the US is not an entirely reliable ally in terms of Afghanistan. While the Trump administration has gone further than any previous administration in condemning Pakistan, this is not a surety in terms of its Afghan policy, where the emphasis seems to be on getting the troops back: at least in part- and giving President Trump a ‘victory’ half way into his term. American policy makers may hate the Taliban, but they’ve had no qualms about negotiating with mujahideen drug dealers and killers in the past.

Three, there is no indication at all that the Taliban leaders have at all cut their umbilical ties with Pakistan. Many Taliban hate the Pakistanis, particularly the intelligence services. But their dependency on Rawalpindi is considerable. And where it is not, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has a habit of making life extremely uncomfortable to say the least.

Last month, Pakistan said it released Taliban leader Mullah Berader from custody. Once the second in command, and with a strong following of his own, Berader was ‘picked up’ by the ISI in February 2010 for initiating reconciliation measures of his own. After seven years in the hands of the ISI, he’s said to be a physical wreck. This is similar to the fate of others who were picked up and subsequently released. Most just disappeared. So no, the Taliban are far from being free of the Pakistanis. So nothing's changed in that quarter.

Fourth, and most crucially, China is slowly extending its influence in Afghanistan, with the Chinese foreign minister agreeing—with Pakistani persuasion—to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. Though India and China have also decided to initiative some tentative cooperate in Afghanistan, this is far from paving the way to a new relationship.

Given such realities, it's not surprising that the MEA is treading a very cautious line. In this, it provides some relief to Kabul, who sees everyone else engaged in ‘talking’ to their sworn enemies without any worthwhile consultation with what is after all, its elected government. This is a line that even a successive Afghan government will appreciate, and therefore ensures that New Delhi remains a trusted partner.

In the final analysis, the Moscow meeting is only the beginning of a process that is likely to last for years before it can claim anything substantive. That gives Delhi time to up its assistance and evaluate its own position. Talking to anyone is not difficult. It's sustaining the conversation that is tricky.

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Updated Date: Nov 09, 2018 17:33 PM

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