Security, and talks with the Taliban, development and connectivity were at the top of the agenda when Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Kabul on the last leg of this phase of his “SAARC yatra”.
According to officials, while Mr. Jaishankar discussed the SAARC agenda on road connectivity and other agreements, he was briefed by his Afghan counterpart Deputy Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai on the security situation in Afghanistan and soon-to-be announced talks with the Taliban.
While neither side divulged any details, Afghanistan’s senior leadership, including President Ashraf Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani also discussed the strategic and defence cooperation between India and Afghanistan in meetings with Mr. Jaishankar. Mr. Rabbani, who is the former head of the Afghan peace council that worked on reconciliation efforts, and the son of the assassinated head of the peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani, is a key figure as the government now prepares to engage the Taliban with Pakistan’s assistance.
In a television interview last week, India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Amar Sinha said the process “must be in accordance with the demands and interests of the Afghan people,” comments read in government circles in Kabul as a word of caution over Pakistan’s growing role in the peace process that President Ashraf Ghani has undertaken.
President Ghani has held several meetings with the Pakistan military, including visits to the GHQ in Rawalpindi, and his government has received Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif, the DG-ISI, and two corps commanders in the past few weeks, indicating a growing closeness to Pakistan as well as China, where President Ghani has visited twice.
Speaking at a seminar at Delhi’s Vivekananda International Foundation, Afghanistan’s former National Security Advisor Amrullah Saleh said, however, that “there is no way India’s place in Afghanistan will be taken.”
“Afghanistan is seeking peace and is trying its chance to negotiate with Pakistan knowing that Pakistan is behind the Taliban. Afghanistan is giving negotiations a chance,” he said.
Amidst other reports that Afghanistan’s government had withdrawn its “wishlist” of weapons and military vehicles made to India in December 2012 after Indian hesitation, officials speaking to The Hindu denied that the relationship between India and Afghanistan was “strained in any way”.
“President Ghani referred to ties with India as a foundational partnership,” an official told TheHindu about Wednesday’s meetings. “He said that India occupies four of the five circles for Afghanistan’s policy matrix — as a neighbour, a regional power, an Asian power and a donor.”
President Ghani is expected to visit India at the end of March.
Indian and Afghan officials also discussed projects being developed by India in Afghanistan including new projects worth about $120 on laying water pipelines announced in January 2015. India has announced development aid of $2 billion to Afghanistan, although some of its key projects like the construction of the Afghan parliament in Kabul and the Salma Dam in Heart have been delayed.
After returning to Delhi on Wednesday evening, the Foreign Secretary will prepare for his next SAARC stop — to Colombo — where he will accompany External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Friday to set the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Sri Lanka visit next weekend.
This article has been corrected for a factual error.