The top Afghan negotiator in peace talks with the Taliban, Abdullah Abdullah, will visit New Delhi in the coming week for an intensive two-day engagement with the Indian leadership.
Abdullah is likely to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval among others on October 7 and 8.
The visit, which could begin from October 6, will be very important in India’s strategic calculus, as the country’s leadership will be briefed on the latest round of talks. Sources said that Abdullah’s visit signals that India is “very much in the loop” in the intra-Afghan negotiations that began in Doha, Qatar, last month.
“There is no ambiguity about India’s Afghan policy, which is transparent, and is to engage with all sides of the political spectrum in Afghanistan. Abdullah’s visit should be seen in that context,” a source told The Indian Express.
Abdullah, 61, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation in Afghanistan, visited Pakistan last week. This will be his first visit to India after the formation of the new government in Kabul following last year’s contested election. He has visited India earlier as Chief Executive Officer of the Afghan government.
In a carefully calibrated shift in its position as it engages with the Taliban, New Delhi had participated in the commencement ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks on September 12. India had sent an official delegation led by Joint Secretary (Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran) J P Singh to Doha, and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had addressed the event virtually. Singh had met Abdullah in a bilateral meeting in the Qatari capital.
Jaishankar had told the gathering that the peace process must be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled”, must “respect national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan”, and “promote human rights and democracy”. Addressing both the Afghan delegation and the Taliban, Jaishankar had said that the new dispensation that emerges from the dialogue process must ensure that Afghan soil is never used for anti-India activities.
Senior Afghan leader Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum had visited India on September 25, and held talks on the peace process with Jaishankar. The minister had told Dostum that India remained committed to Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled negotiations.
Abdullah had told reporters in Islamabad that Pakistan and Afghanistan were on “the same page” on questions of reducing violence and showing flexibility in the negotiations underway in Doha. These views should be emphasised in “messages communicated to Taliban”, he had said.
India, the region’s largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan, has expressed concern at the recent spike in violence by the Taliban, and terror attacks on minorities such as Sikhs. It has said intra-Afghan talks must ensure that interests of minorities, women, and vulnerable sections of society are protected, and reduce violence in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.
Since 2001, India has undertaken projects worth $3 billion in Afghanistan, including $1 billion pledged in 2016 under the “new development partnership” scheme for five years.
The US envoy on Taliban reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad too, had visited India last month to brief New Delhi on the talks.
India’s presence in Doha, along with a 21-member Taliban delegation, had signalled a significant nuancing of India’s position, and reflected South Block’s appreciation of ground realities in Afghanistan. While India’s then ambassador to Qatar P Kumaran had attended the signing of the US-Taliban pact on February 29, the participation by the minister and a senior official from New Delhi indicated a step-up in the engagement with the Taliban who are negotiating a new power-sharing arrangement.
Abdullah’s visit marks continued Indian efforts at engagement to protect its strategic interests amid Pakistan’s growing influence. South Block will try to understand in the meetings the redlines that the Kabul government is negotiating with the Taliban.