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‘India must not give Taliban legitimacy until it joins intra-Afghan talks’

With the terrorist organisation not willing to announce a ceasefire even amid the COVID-19 crisis, they mustn’t get a ‘free pass’ from U.S., says former envoy to Kabul

Saying that the U.S. is trying to salvage its deal with the Taliban, despite rising violence in Afghanistan, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) member and former envoy to Kabul Amar Sinha stressed it would be pointless for India to engage with the group till it joins the intra-Afghan dialogue.

After a bitter electoral battle, the top leadership in Kabul has reached a settlement that will bring Abdullah Abdullah into the government with President Ghani as the President of the High Council for peace and national reconciliation, expected to lead the intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. How do you see this development?

Despite all the fighting and the rival factions, the Afghan leadership has shown once again its ability to come together when that is needed the most. We saw this in 2009, and again in 2014 after elections brought fractured mandates. And this time, too, it is heartening to see the efforts of Mr. Ghani, Mr. Abdullah, and other leaders to effect a compromise. One shouldn’t overlook this development. It is a positive development, certainly.

This week has also seen some of the worst possible attacks in Kabul, including at a hospital maternity ward. Has the situation there worsened since the U.S.-Taliban agreement?

Unfortunately, the U.S.-Taliban deal has a tolerance for violence written into it. It contains no commitment to stopping attacks against Afghan forces, only those against American soldiers and NATO forces. According to intelligence reports, the Taliban has decided to not to claim attacks on civilians. Those are left to ISIS-KP.

The U.S. statement also puts the blame for the attacks on ISIS, not Taliban. How should India see this U.S. position?

The U.S. is trying to salvage their deal with the Taliban, especially with elections ahead. They must have their own sources, but it is strange to absolve the Taliban of guilt while investigations are still under way.

The real question is that if the Taliban says that ISIS-KP is their enemy, should they not join hands with the U.S. and Afghan government to go after ISIS-KP? At the moment, the Taliban are not even willing to announce a ceasefire, amidst the coronavirus crisis, amidst these brutal attacks, and not even during the month of Ramzan. They mustn’t get a ‘free pass’ from America.

What is your reaction to U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s suggestion — in an interview to The Hindu — that India should talk directly to the Taliban?

I think everyone here realises that if the Taliban comes back to power, joins the mainstream, then India will engage with them as we do any political force in Afghanistan. But they need to become a political force first. What is of concern is Mr. Khalilzad saying that India needs to speak to the Taliban directly to discuss security concerns. This reminds one of the situation before 2001, before the global war on terror, when each country was on its own.

At present, the Taliban is a destructive force. It will become a political force only when it joins the intra-Afghan talks. Otherwise, at best the Taliban can pretend to be some sort of a government in exile based in Doha, conducting negotiations with other players, but not with people in Afghanistan.

Why should India give legitimacy to this kind of force in its own neighbourhood?

Yet, you have yourself taken part in talks in Moscow in 2018, which included the Taliban….

Yes, Russia convened an intra-Afghan meet, where regional countries were invited, and Taliban representatives were present. We attended it as a “non-official” presence.

Talking directly to the Taliban is different, and should be done only once we know what we want. It’s clear that what the Taliban wants is recognition. India should have a wish list of its own.

Some have suggested that India’s wish list should include commitments on security, safety of minorities, and infrastructure projects… Would you agree?

For me there is only one real expectation we should have: that the Taliban should deal with India as an independent entity, as a nationalist Afghan entity, and not a proxy for other countries.

Bilateral ties between New Delhi and Kabul remain strong, but there is a sense India is being sidelined in the regional talks on Afghanistan…

No doubt, our bilateral ties are very good, and we must be engaged in the regional process for peace in Afghanistan.

We deal with Afghanistan’s neighbours at many regional fora: SCO, RIC, SAARC etc. However, we should not feel bad if India is not at every table.

The truth is, when it comes to Afghanistan’s future, India cannot be ignored.

I think everyone here realises that if the Taliban comes back to power, joins the mainstream, then India will engage with them as we do any political force in Afghanistan

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