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India, and the Taliban’s changing dynamics

The first officially acknowledged dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government took place in Murree, Pakistan, on July 7. Among those attending were representatives of Pakistan, China and the U.S. This comes eight months after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s meeting with Gen. Raheel Sharif and the subsequent assurance that Pakistan would help convince the Taliban to negotiate.

The Taliban delegation — Mullah Jalil, Mullah Hasan and Abdul Razzaq — was the same trio that met a high-level Afghan delegation in Urumqi, China. The Afghan delegation had Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, former Governor of Nangarhar Haji Deen Muhammad and seven others. As the talks involved second-tier leaders from both sides, it is entirely possible that none of them had any authority to bring critical issues to the table.

The major outcome, according to Pakistani media sources, is that the next round of talks is provisionally planned for August 15 and 16 in Doha, Qatar. Another projected win was the reported “endorsement” by Taliban leader Mullah Omar on the Taliban website. Since Omar hasn’t been seen in public for years now, the authenticity of this approval is suspect.

The Murree talks were significant in that they highlighted a shift in the stance of Taliban’s Qatar office, which has now emerged as its official voice. While not formally repudiating the talks, the Qatar office made a convoluted pronouncement indicating that future negotiations needed its imprimatur for any chance of success. This suggests that Murree was a preliminary round of talks about talks, and is borne out by the announcement of the Doha round.

The Taliban is no longer the monolith that it was and many streams have emerged in the movement. None of them are watertight compartments, allowing individuals and factions to flow from one to another. Each has several factions that may or may not have problems with each other.

There are problems between the Taliban’s political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, considered close to the ISI, who favours negotiation, and Abdul Qayum Zakir, Taliban’s military commander and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who is opposed to any talks. Zakir insists that the Afghan government lacks legitimacy and it was the U.S., the occupying power, which was in control. Zakir’s position has been reinforced after the Afghan government signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and he will oppose talks over the presence of foreign troops.

Yet another line of thought is the one that is open to talks, provided it is held on their terms. This means two things: one, they are not comfortable with Pakistan leading the talks and two, they see escalation in violence as a means to get to a vantage point before discussions begin. It is averse to a ceasefire, as that would allow the beleaguered unity government to consolidate its control. This led to the rejection of the Afghan Ulema’s call for a Ramzan ceasefire.

A third group is not openly supportive of talks, as this could drive some extreme elements into joining movements like the Daesh, but it also wants some form of normalcy and will not oppose talks.

With pressure mounting on Pakistan, it had thrown its weight behind the latest round of talks in Murree. Given the mounting international criticism that it had misled the Ashraf Ghani government, it had to display its earnestness and influence over the Taliban by mediating talks on its soil.

Within Afghanistan, scepticism is growing. Even Mr. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, has said that the country’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will be in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan. Omar Daudzai, Mr. Karzai’s Interior Minister and Chief of Staff, considered till recently to be close to Pakistan where he served as Ambassador, also expressed scepticism about Pakistan’s sincerity.

Moreover, critical demands by the Taliban, such as establishment of a Sharia state and the complete withdrawal of foreign troops are sure to cause a roadblock. Another roadblock is Pakistan’s role — a split in the Taliban enables it to continue talks on one hand while allowing for violence on the other.

India has been on the sidelines because of its limited relationship with the Taliban. Though India has never recognised the Taliban, what often goes unnoticed is that there was limited interaction even during the Kandahar hijacking. An Indian delegation was allowed in without visas and the External Affairs Minister entered into talks with representatives of a government it did not recognise. The point person for all of this was Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.

However, times are changing. The perception that talks with at least some of the Talibani elements might bring an end to the imbroglio is gaining ground in Afghanistan. This, coupled with the existence of several lines of thought in Taliban, allows India to reconsider its position on Afghanistan.

Considering the social capital that India has built in Afghanistan, India might, at an appropriate moment and in consultation with the Afghan government and other stakeholders, consider opening a channel to factions associated with Taliban’s Qatar office. Diplomacy is often about picking the lesser evil to serve the national interest.

(Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane work at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.)

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 12:46:56 PM |

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