In December 1999, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh asked the ministry official in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Vivek Katju, who was at Kandahar airport trying to negotiate with the hijackers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, if Singh could meet Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Singh, who was in Delhi, asked Katju to talk to the Taliban regime’s foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil. Within minutes, Muttawakil said, “Yes, why not? I am going to make contact (with Mullah Omar).” Then the response came: “Sorry, you cannot, don’t fly to Kandahar.” “Muttwakil’s minders in the ISI must have upbraided him for even this little relenting,” Singh wrote in A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, his account of the hijack that ended with him accompanying three “TADA detenues”, including Maulana Masood Azhar, to Kandahar.
That was possibly the only time India publicly engaged with the Taliban regime. Indian officials, including Ajit Doval of IB, C D Sahay of R&AW and A R Ghanshyam of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, were talking to the Taliban regime’s interlocutors, headed by Muttawakil.
Last week, India sent two former diplomats, former Ambassador to Afghanistan Amar Sinha and former High Commissioner to Pakistan T C A Raghavan, as “non-official” participants at the “Moscow format” multilateral meeting that included Taliban delegates. Sinha and Raghavan are currently associated with separate think-tanks funded by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Afghanistan did not send delegates from its foreign ministry, but from the Afghan High Peace Council, who were joined by the Ambassador to Russia. The HPC is a government-appointed forum tasked with the peace and reconciliation process. The choice of delegates allowed India and Afghanistan distance and deniability. New Delhi is understood to have consulted Kabul about the level of its participation. The Indian representatives did not make a statement at the meeting.
It was the first time Indian government-nominated representatives were sharing the table with a Taliban delegation. It was perceived as a shift in position.
India was among the countries that had refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-2001, In September 1996, hours before Kabul fell to Taliban, the Indian mission was closed by chargé d’affaires Azad Singh Toor. “There was so much panic that everyone who could, fled,” said Toor.
When Taliban first emerged on the scene in 1994 after the fall of the Mohammed Najibullah government in 1992, India watched its growth with concern, assessing early that it was being propped by Pakistan’s army and the ISI. While the Kandahar hijack forced India to negotiate, at other times it supported anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. “Throughout the 1990s, India gave military and financial assistance to the Northern Alliance fighting the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban regime in Afghanistan,” former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote in How India Sees the World (2017).
Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was leading the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, visited India in 2001, months before his assassination. Jaswant Singh met Massoud, who told him the IC-814 hijackers were in Pakistan and that it was a Taliban-assisted hijack.
After the 9/11 attacks and the US crackdown leading to the fall of the Taliban regime, Jaswant Singh flew to Kabul to attend the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai’s regime in December 2001, and India re-established its mission after five years. When the Taliban re-emerged in 2006-07 to once again challenge US forces, India maintained it was not going to talk with the Taliban. As Taliban grew in strength, and the US decided to withdraw troops by 2009, the Karzai government reached out to the Taliban with a peace and reconciliation process.
In the International Conference on Afghanistan in London in 2010, India made a quiet shift. It said it is for the elected government of Afghanistan to draw the “red lines” or lay down terms and conditions for negotiating with the Taliban. The Afghan government had stated that the “Taliban must accept the Afghan Constitution, renounce violence and sever all ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations”. This was endorsed during the conference. That was the first diplomatic opening. Although New Delhi would not directly talk to Taliban, this shift meant it was approving the outreach if the Taliban adhered to these red lines.
After the Ashraf Ghani government came to power, Kabul reached out to Pakistan for reconciliation with Taliban, but had its fingers burnt as terrorist attacks continued.
Over the last couple of years, as the US, China and Russia brokered reconciliation and peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, New Delhi made another quiet shift. It stopped public articulation and insisting on the three “red lines”, and just insisted that the peace process be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned”.
Many in Delhi see current efforts such as the Moscow format meeting as not being “Afghan-led”, since Russians or the Americans are taking the lead. India’s participation, however, is crucial, even though it is at a non-official level. It means New Delhi is invested in the process, and wants to be part of the talks, even as an observer for starters.
India’s choice of representatives gives the impression that it has done so carefully. While Sinha has been in Kabul, Raghavan worked as Jaswant Singh’s aide, went on to become the Indian Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan from 2003 to 2007, and returned to become the joint secretary (in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) in the Ministry of External Affairs. He went to Pakistan again as Indian High Commissioner and stitched up the surprise visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore in 2015, days before he retired.
Many have criticised India’s latest decision as giving international legitimacy to the forces it once opposed. On the other hand, former Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon wrote in Choices: “Radical ideologies and religion cannot be defeated on the battlefield, particularly if their military manifestation has state support, as is the case with the Taliban and the LeT.”
New Delhi has taken a leap of faith to engage with the Taliban. Under what terms, is the next big question.