India is in contact with “various stakeholders” in Afghanistan, the Ministry of External Affairs said, in response to specific questions about whether the government has opened direct talks with the Taliban.
While the MEA did not confirm the talks, which would represent a major shift for Indian policy, it did not deny recent reports that indicated that Indian security officials have exchanged messages with several “nationalist” Taliban factions, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a member of the Rehbari Shura, or leadership council, that includes Pakistan-based Taliban accused of terrorism.
“We are in touch with various stakeholders in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, speaking to journalists on Thursday, where he referred to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s participation at the inaugural ceremony of the Intra-Afghan talks with Taliban leaders in Doha last year.
Significantly, Mr. Jaishankar held a meeting with Qatar National Security Advisor Mohamed Bin Ahmed Al Mesned on Thursday, during a transit stop in Doha, between his visits to Kuwait and Kenya, where he said he had discussed “developments in the region and beyond.”
The MEA declined to respond to a question on whether the recent developments in the Afghanistan talks came up during the conversation. The talks appear to have run into trouble both in Doha, where the Taliban’s official headquarters are based, and in Istanbul, where a U.S.-backed process for talks with the Taliban have been delayed for more than two months,
Deviating from earlier path
India has thus far refused to open direct dialogue with the Taliban leadership, which it held responsible for facilitating terror attacks along with groups like the Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammad on Indian missions in Afghanistan. However, according to experts, India has reconsidered its position in the aftermath of the U.S. announcement that it would pull out all its troops by September this year.
“The clarity over the U.S. decision to pull out, which could be as early as next month, has added to the sense of urgency for Delhi to make these direct contacts,” said Associate Professor of International Relations at SOAS in U.K. and author Avinash Paliwal, who had confirmed the Indian outreach in a column earlier this week.
“The exercise of India opening these channels and being comfortable with this information being out in the public is a signal to both the policymaking community in India and the interlocutors on the other side that they are serious about the talks with the Taliban,” he told The Hindu , making the point that while India has had indirect contacts with the Taliban in the past, it is for the first time, that government officials are indicating an ease with the information being released.
An official who asked not to be named, said India’s engagement with groups in Afghanistan are driven by a desire to “limit damage” to its security interests as a result of the U.S.’s decision to leave and the Taliban gaining military strength in several key provinces. Last April, the government decided to pull out Indian personnel and close down operations at two Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat, near borders with Pakistan and Iran respectively, pending a full security review. While government sources had said the closure of operations was “temporary” and caused by the COVID pandemic, no Indian officials have been posted back to either consulate.