There has been an increased interest inside the Taliban about a possible dialogue with India, according to a source privy to the Taliban. The Taliban would consider, if India wished to talk, the source maintained.
Reports of this tentative and cautious approach comes even as spokesperson of the Taliban political office Suhail Shaheen declared in a social media post that their political team would discuss the last points of the agreement with the United States team led by Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad.
Neither India nor Taliban have held any direct talks over the last two decades. The source said the Taliban had adopted dialogue as a policy for the future of Afghanistan. “Like other countries, India too can be a dialogue partner.”
A major issue between the two sides was the hijacking of Indian Airlines aircraft IC814 in 1999 by militants of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen that led to a protracted negotiation with the militant group mediated by Taliban in the Kandahar airport.
The source claimed that the circumstances at that time were imposed on it. “Taking aircraft is against our stated policy. We were pushed into the middle of this incident and tried to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. Back then, the Indian government had expressed its appreciation to the Taliban for the release of the aircraft and the hostages,” said the senior source over phone, urging strict anonymity.
The source said that India’s appreciation was conveyed to a senior member of the Afghan negotiating team at the Kandahar airport.
At that time, the Taliban rule was led by Mullah Omar, who was known as the Ameer-ul-Momineen. The negotiation with the Taliban for freeing the aircraft was led by then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who recorded his impression of the outfit’s role in his autobiography A Call to Honour. He had expressed “some [sincere] gratitude” for the role they played in the negotiation as they had “goaded” the hijackers to negotiate up to a point.
The hijacking of IC814 in December 1999 was an event that influenced India’s attitude to the Taliban in the years since then. The flight was forced to land in Kandahar after stopovers in Pakistan and the Gulf and was flown back to Delhi on December 31 in exchange for militants freed by India from its custody.
During the United Progressive Alliance rule, some reports suggested covert meetings between the Taliban and India but they were never officially confirmed. The Government of India had appointed a special envoy to look after India’s interests in Afghanistan during the tenure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan so far.
Apart from the U.S., China, Russia and Iran held talks with the outfit as the United Nations sanctions on members of the political group were lifted earlier this year, making it easier for the 14-member Taliban political team to travel. The team includes veterans like Sher Abbas Stanikzai and head negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Earlier this year, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hinted that Tehran could help India initiate a dialogue with the outfit. However, such an initiative is yet to take off. Taliban had not been vocal on issues relevant to India in recent years but spoke about the situation in Kashmir on August 7 and urged both India and Pakistan to “refrain from taking steps” that could lead to violence in the region.