A day ahead of the signing of a peace pact between the US and Taliban in Doha, the government on Friday sent foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Kabul where he conveyed “India’s support for the people of Afghanistan in their pursuit for sustainable peace, security and development”.
Shringla met Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister Haroon Chakhansuri and national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib in Kabul. Chakhansuri and Shringla “reviewed and positively assessed” developments in bilateral strategic partnership.
“Foreign secretary conveyed India’s support for the people of Afghanistan in their pursuit for sustainable peace, security and development,” the Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.
At his meeting with NSA Mohib, Shringla reiterated India’s commitment to “stand with Afghanistan” as it pursues “sustainable peace and reconciliation,” the MEA spokesperson said. The MEA statement did not explicitly spell out support for the “government of Afghanistan” but referred to the “people of Afghanistan” or just “Afghanistan” — the government there is led by President Ashraf Ghani.
The Mohib-led Afghan National Security Council, in a tweet, said Mohib met Shringla who reiterated India’s support for an “Afghan-led, -owned, & -controlled peace process”. It also said that the Afghan NSA appreciated India’s offer of assistance to combat COVID19, noting that Afghanistan is currently able to manage.
The MEA spokesperson said Shringla and Mohib expressed “satisfaction” with the multifaceted strategic partnership. Shringla’s dash o Kabul came at a time when India, in its first step towards engaging with the Taliban, decided to send its envoy to the signing of the peace pact between the US and Taliban in Doha on Saturday, according to sources.
This is the first time that an official representative will attend a ceremony where the Taliban representatives will be present. When Taliban was in power between 1996 and 2001, India did not recognise it diplomatically and officially.
Sources said India received an “invitation” from Qatar, and after deliberations at the highest level, the government decided to send India’s Ambassador to Qatar, P Kumaran. Sources said Shringla’s visit needs to be seen in the context of India engaging with all stakeholders and political, state and non-state actors in Afghanistan. On February 20, India congratulated President Ghani on his re-election following the announcement of final results of the Presidential elections by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
India has been a key stakeholder in the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Now, faced with the new reality in Afghanistan, India is moving to diplomatically engage with the Taliban. India’s presence at the agreement-signing ceremony is the first sign of a possible diplomatic opening. New Delhi has vital strategic stakes in Afghanistan, where it has worked on several development projects. In fact, earlier this week, US President Donald Trump had briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the situation in Afghanistan and the deal since the signing of the pact has strategic, security and political implications for India.
While India has never negotiated with the Taliban — except during the IC-814 hijack in 1999 — it was part of the Moscow-led talks with the Taliban in November 2018, which two former Indian diplomats attended as “non-official representatives”. Former Indian envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha and former Indian envoy to Pakistan T C A Raghavan, both associated with government-funded think tanks, participated in the talks as “observers”.
Though some within the strategic establishment have argued for engaging with the Taliban, the foreign policy establishment has so far shied away from doing so. With the new US-Taliban deal, India has recalibrated its position and taken the first step towards engaging with the Taliban. What happens to the Ashraf Ghani government will be something that Delhi will watch. Under Modi, India has developed a close relationship with Ghani, and both have been on the same side regarding Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Shringla’s outreach to top officials in the Ghani government is a step in that direction.
New Delhi’s move to send Shringla is also a step in keeping with its second red line where it has maintained that “any process should respect the constitutional legacy and political mandate”. This means that the achievement of establishing democratic processes and human rights, including women’s rights, should be respected. And, the third redline has been about the terrorist groups, which function with Pakistan’s support. New Delhi has always maintained that any process “should not lead to any ungoverned spaces where terrorist and their proxies can relocate”.
This is crucial for India, as it points to the threat from terrorist groups including the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which must not be allowed to operate there. Also, Pakistan-based terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed must not be allowed to relocate.
Shringla’s visit is aimed at gauging the sense on the ground about Pakistan’s influence, post deal, and how empowered is the Ghani government after the rise of the Taliban.