‘India should talk to Taliban, discuss terror concerns directly’

U.S. Special Representative says the peace process in Afghanistan could become a platform for regional cooperation and connectivity

India should begin a dialogue with the Taliban, says U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad , adding that he had discussed India’s possible future role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during a short stop in New Delhi on Thursday. In an interview, Mr. Khalilzad said his mission was building support for the full implementation of the U.S.–Taliban agreement. Edited excerpts:

It is rare for anyone to be travelling during the coronavirus lockdown, let alone high officials. Tell us what brought you to the region, and how your meetings went?

The mission is to encourage movement towards the implementation of the U.S.–Taliban agreement signed at Doha in February. Part of the confidence building measures leading to intra-Afghan negotiations, is that both the Taliban and the Afghan government have to release prisoners on both sides. Secondly that there must be a reduction in violence compared to the period before the agreement was signed, and thirdly, that in order to get lasting peace and bring the long war in Afghanistan to an end, we should open the door to negotiations for a political roadmap and a permanent comprehensive ceasefire.

The territory of Afghanistan must not be used against the United States, our allies and in fact the world. So peace for Afghanistan, and security for the world from Afghanistan, are our two goals, and I was encouraged by my meetings on this trip. International support for peace in Afghanistan is important and Indian support in particular was the focus of my mission [to Delhi].

Is the focus on India’s role just lip service? India is not at present involved in any of the regional formats that are currently discussing Afghanistan’s future…

That’s an excellent question, because this is a paradox, that on the one hand India has such a significant role when you look at the development of Afghanistan and India has such a long history with the people of Afghanistan. But when it comes to international efforts, India does not yet have the role that it could.

Part of that may have been a choice to pursue its role bilaterally, but I think as the peace process gets more serious, and the U.S.–Taliban agreement goes into the next stages, we want India to take a more active role in the peace process, and that was a key focus of our discussion in Delhi.

Did you also discuss the possibility of India opening direct, public talks with the Taliban during your meetings, something India has rejected thus far?

It is for India to decide its role, but I do think engagement between India and all the key players in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the government but also in terms of political forces, society and the Afghan body politic, is appropriate given India’s regional and global position. India is an important force in Afghanistan and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place.

Has India expressed a desire for a role beyond humanitarian assistance, economic and reconstruction, in terms of mediation, or more security assistance?

We did discuss what kind of future role India might want to play. When it comes to the peace process, I can tell you India is considering a more active role, and we in the U.S. are supportive of India’s engagement in the international process.

Specifically, could India help in the current impasse within the Afghan polity, in particular between President Ghani, and former CEO Dr. Abdullah?

India has good relations with several leaders in Afghanistan and like the U.S., India supports the end of the political crisis in Kabul to bring about a more inclusive government. I am encouraged by the decision of the political leaders: President Ghani, Dr. Abdullah, (former) President Karzai, and other leaders to form an inclusive negotiating team. I found that India and the U.S. are on the same wavelength with regard to the resolution of the internal political crisis and the establishment of an inclusive government.

The U.S.-Taliban deal is being seen in India as a deal for withdrawal, not a peace deal. There are concerns that this is not an Afghan owned and led agreement, there is no ceasefire, no Taliban commitment to the constitution. In fact the U.S. seems to be putting the Taliban at par with the democratically elected government in Kabul. Your response?

The U.S.–Taliban agreement is a necessary step to transition to the Afghan owned process. We have a specific commitment from the Taliban not to allow terrorism from territory they control, and should they join a future government that they will not allow Al Qaeda and other terror groups to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies, and indeed the rest of the world. That’s an important achievement. So while we are not as far along as we or India would have liked, we don’t see a better alternative to this process.

For India, it is the groups in Afghanistan that target India, which are backed by Pakistan that are a worry, and the U.S.–Taliban agreement doesn’t mention those.

Look, our strong position is that there shouldn’t be [terror] sanctuaries on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and I believe that for peace to come to Afghanistan, there is a need for good relations amongst the neighbours and support for peace. I believe that the Pakistani leadership has supported the peace process, and thinks that the time has come for economic strategy, for trade and development and for Afghanistan to become a platform for regional cooperation and connectivity. We encourage and support those objectives. India and Afghanistan have historic ties, and I believe that dialogue between India and the Taliban is important, and it would be important that issues of concern like this [terrorism] are raised directly.

Our strong position is that there shouldn’t be [terror] sanctuaries on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border

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