Indian delegation met Taliban in Doha, says Qatari official

First official confirmation that New Delhi has engaged the group directly after years of refusal

June 21, 2021 11:00 pm | Updated 11:00 pm IST - NEW DELHI

File photo of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

File photo of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

Indian officials made a “quiet visit” to Doha in order to speak to the Taliban’s political leadership based there, said a senior Qatari official, in what appears to be the first official confirmation of recent reports that New Delhi has engaged the Taliban directly.

“I understand that there has been a quiet visit by Indian officials to speak to the Taliban,” said Qatar’s Special Envoy of the State of Qatar for Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani, speaking at a web conference on Monday.

The statement came just days after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stopped over in Doha to meet with the Qatari leadership twice in the last two weeks. The MEA declined to comment on Mr. Qahtani’s statement, and did not respond to questions about what level, if any, contacts with the political leadership of the Taliban based in Doha would have been at.

In response to a question from The Hindu during the discussion, Mr. Qahtani said the reasoning behind the meeting was that the Taliban will have a “key” role in Afghanistan’s future.

“Not that everybody thinks the Taliban is going to dominate and take over, but because it is a key component of the future of Afghanistan. So, I see this as the reason behind having a dialogue or talks and reaching out to all parties in Afghanistan,” he added.

Mr. Qahtani was speaking at a conference organised by the Arab Centre in Washington and Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha, on “ Looking towards Peace in Afghanistan after the US-NATO Withdrawal ”.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, who is set to meet U.S. President Joseph Biden this Friday in Washington, to discuss the situation developing ahead of the US-NATO troops pull-out, will also address the 3-day conference.

“It is important to keep in mind that we are in a critical stage at this time, and if any meetings happen at this time, it should be to encourage the (Afghan-Taliban) parties to solve their differences by peaceful means. This is a golden opportunity for all them to get back [to talks]. Nobody including Qatar is going to recognise any group that is going to take a country by force,” Mr. Qahtani went on to say, in a reference to concerns that the Taliban could attempt a violent takeover in Afghanistan after the U.S.-NATO troop pull-out in September this year.

To a question about whether any talks between India and Pakistan are linked to the Afghan reconciliation process, Mr. Qahtani said, “Afghanistan as a country should not become a place for a proxy [fight] for other countries.”

“It is in the Interest of Pakistan and India to have a stable Afghanistan. Pakistan is a neighbouring country. India is a country that we know has assisted a lot economically in Afghanistan and they want it to be peaceful and stable,” he added.

In response to previous media reports that had pointed to a new, direct reach out by the Modi government to the Taliban, after years of refusing to recognise the militant group accused of terror attacks in Afghanistan, the MEA spokesperson had said that New Delhi is “in touch with various stakeholders in pursuance of its long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had visited Doha during two brief stopovers on June 9 and June 15 during his travels to Kuwait and Kenya, where he had met with the Qatari Foreign Minister and the National Security Advisor, as well as U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

“As Qatar is involved in the Afghanistan peace process, the issue of Afghanistan was also discussed during EAM’s conversations. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad happened to be in Doha during this period of EAM’s visit, and called on EAM to brief him on the recent developments regarding Afghanistan,” the MEA spokesperson said on Thursday.

The Qatar government has hosted the Taliban’s main office in Doha since 2013, and is the organiser of the Intra Afghan Dialogue or Afghan-Taliban talks that were inaugurated in September last year. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had participated in the inauguration ceremony for the talks, while an Indian delegation led by MEA’s Joint Secretary for Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan J.P. Singh had attended the ceremony in Doha.

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