It was a mistake not to invite India to Moscow talks, says Afghan Foreign Minister

Haneef Atmar says Afghan President has presented Taliban with the option of ending the conflict in a peaceful way and it is up to them to make a choice.

Updated - December 02, 2021 10:50 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2021 08:14 pm IST

Afghanistan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar listens to a question during an interview with “The Hindu” in New Delhi on March 24, 2021.

Afghanistan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar listens to a question during an interview with “The Hindu” in New Delhi on March 24, 2021.

In an unexpected move, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has offered a counter proposal to the U.S. plan for peace, suggesting that if the Taliban declares a ceasefire and participates in elections, he would be prepared to hold early elections and hand over power to a new government. In an interview to The Hindu, Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar confirmed that he had reached out to the Indian leadership with the proposal this week, making it clear that Afghanistan believes India has an important role in the future Afghan reconciliation process.

During your meetings in Delhi, with National Security Advisor Mr. Doval and External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, you have spoken about a new peace proposal that President Ghani is suggesting. What was the Indian reaction to that?

This is part of the commitment of the government of Afghanistan to the peace process — that we have been looking at ways in which the opposition (Taliban) could be encouraged to participate in the legitimate political process rather than resorting to violence against their own people. The President took a bold step, and said, if the Taliban agrees to a political settlement, support the idea of elections — free and fair elections, the President will be ready to hold early Presidential elections in which the Taliban would participate and a new Government of Afghanistan can be elected by the Afghan people. Now, this is to be appreciated as the biggest sacrifice of an elected leader who is putting the interest of the Afghan people first. And he makes it his mission to bring peace to Afghanistan no matter what it might mean.

But is it a realistic proposal, given that there is talks with the Taliban in Doha, and we still haven't seen a ceasefire, let alone the idea that Taliban might actually consider joining the political mainstream, standing for elections? Is this offer real or rhetorical?

It is a real one. Because the first issue for the Taliban was that they're fighting because of the presence of foreign troops. There has been a peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States, and there is an agreement on the departure of foreign troops, but also a commitment from the Taliban on expulsion of the foreign fighters that fight alongside the Taliban. So that was issue number one. The world is expecting the two sides to sort of deliver on their mutual obligations.


Issue number two was, for them to reach a political settlement with the rest of the Afghans. Now for that, elections are a must. It is what the Afghan people want. And it is the legitimate way for Afghan free political will to be expressed. Now, the Taliban has both of these at the table, the departure of foreign troops and a legitimate way to participate in the polity and governance of Afghanistan. It's up to them now, whether they want to reject a peaceful way of ending this conflict, or continue to stick to violence as a means to acquire power.

The U.S. proposal, as outlined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was about power-sharing talks, about the possibility of an interim government, and not elections. Is President Ghani rejecting the U.S. offer?

Well the U.S. has clearly said that this is not their proposal, per se, and that it is a discussion paper to stimulate debate and to contribute to the peace process. The government of Afghanistan has demonstrated its sincerity that it has a proposal along the lines of more or less what has been proposed by him and international circles for the inclusion of the Taliban in the political process. So let me look at the essential elements here. Element number one is a peaceful settlement. Number two, reduction in violence and ceasefire. And number three, a legitimate way for reintegration.

Now, some people would argue that a transitional government may be a means for reintegration. Others would say that undermining that constitutional process will remove legitimacy from any formula that might allow the two sides to participate. So the best way forward is to respect the constitution, accept the offer of an honourable way to respect the free will of the Afghan people.

What was New Delhi’s response to this proposal?

New Delhi is a very good friend, and has always been supportive for the position of the Afghan people. They stand by the Afghan government, especially for peace and preservation of the gains of the past two decades. This is very important for the Afghan people to feel that we have a friend who's standing by us. India has demonstrated that not only politically, but also as I said, as one of the biggest donors to Afghanistan. India says that anything leading to a peaceful settlement and achieving the end state that is acceptable to the Afghan people, would be acceptable to India. So we thank them again, because as a good friend, they always show the kind of understanding that is unique.

But unlike every other country that is involved in this process, India has not opened talks with the Taliban …Is that something the Ghani government wants?

India's position was quite clear that they support a peace process — an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled peace process. So, if the Taliban comes and joins a legitimate government of Afghanistan, India would work with them. India's policy of working on condition of support for the peace is extremely important. And we very much appreciate that.

Was there a discussion about the India-Pakistan peace process or the signs of engagement witnessed in the past few weeks?

First of all, cooperation between India and Afghanistan is just about our bilateral issues. We keep other issues out of this process. Of course, our regional international cooperation is also part of our common interests. We always welcome dialogue as a means to resolving challenges and problems. India has grown as a regional power and an international, responsible actor. So their engagement for a peaceful resolution of conflicts is very well appreciated across the globe. And I hope that these responsible gestures are met with reciprocity.

You have called for a larger role for India in the regional process. And yet we find again and again, India is cut out of different forums for talks, most recently in Moscow, where the extended Troika met practically everyone, but India was not given an invitation. What is the major obstacle to India's position in this regional process?

That was a mistake, not to invite India to Moscow, and we made it clear [to the organisers] that peace and stability in our region and regional connectivity and prosperity cannot happen without India. So it will be important for countries to think strategically, and to ensure that India's cooperation and goodwill that has been there for the entire region should be seriously translated into mutual cooperation.

I would strongly suggest to all my international partners, that it is the desire of the Afghan people to have the strong presence of India, in the process of peace-making and also peace sustaining. Even if a peace agreement is really possible, who is going to support the implementation of that peace? Of all the major nations around Afghanistan, India has been one of the most generous, so it is in the best interest of the region, to have a generous player in the process.

India has been part of development assistance, as well as helping with the constitution election process in Afghanistan. Have you at any point asked for India's help in peacekeeping? In other words for Indian security assistance on the ground in Afghanistan?

No, we have not, because we strongly believe that India's goodwill and resources of generosity will be best utilised in terms of peace, stability, reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.

Is there something India and Afghanistan can work on together that will ensure that not only the Constitution, but the electoral process, the rights of minorities and women, that have been enshrined in the last few years are retained?

Absolutely. We do not have many red flags. But we do have one red line — that it will be impossible for Afghan people to reverse the progress we've made in terms of democracy, human rights, women's empowerment and participation, free media, a democratic way of governance and holding leaders [accountable]. Those are the things that the Afghan people would not want to lose. So for that reason, there will be no compromise on those critical rights.

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