As US eyes Afghan exit, India talks to key playershttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/as-us-eyes-afghan-exit-india-talks-to-key-players-5567457/

As US eyes Afghan exit, India talks to key players

The Indian Express has learnt the government has been “working behind the scenes” over the last few months, as it became clear that Washington is negotiating with the Taliban to enable its exit from Afghanistan.

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PM Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

FROM PASHTUNS to Hazaras and Tajiks, New Delhi has quietly opened channels of communication with top Afghan leaders cutting across communities and factions as uncertainty looms over Afghanistan amid signs of the US withdrawing from the strife-torn country, top sources told The Indian Express.

“We have independently started engaging with all major political actors and factions, since we have major economic assets in Afghanistan and need to secure those interests,” sources said. Some of these players have visited India in the recent weeks and have met “those who matter in the Indian system”, they said.

The Indian Express has learnt the government has been “working behind the scenes” over the last few months, as it became clear that Washington is negotiating with the Taliban to enable its exit from Afghanistan.

Last November, India made its intent clear about sharing the table with the Taliban, when it sent two of its most experienced former diplomats with expertise in the region — former Indian envoy to Pakistan T C A Raghavan and former Indian envoy to Afghanistan Amar Sinha — for the Russia-organised Moscow format talks.

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Although it retained deniability by saying that its participation was at a “non-official” level, it was clear that Delhi could read the writing on the wall and wanted to be “in the room” when the Taliban was negotiating.

Among the principal actors with whom Delhi has engaged recently include former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who is emerging to be a key player in the peace and reconciliation process.

Fifteen candidates, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, former National Directorate of Security chief Rahmatullah Nabil, and Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have registered to stand for the presidency.

It is likely that some of these candidates have been sounded out by Delhi. “We may not have been visible, but we have been active,” sources said.

Delhi has also engaged with key international stakeholders — the US, Russia, Iran and several Central Asian countries — in the recent weeks. Sources said it is now planning to have a structured dialogue with Chinese interlocutors as well, who have economic stakes in Afghanistan. “We are going to discuss the future of Afghanistan with China as well,” sources said. However, Delhi has not yet approached Pakistan to discuss Afghanistan.

India is learnt to have impressed upon the international players that it will not favour any “interim arrangement” — as is being pushed by the US — and would want the Presidential elections to be held on July 20, as per the current schedule.

Sources said this was conveyed to Zalmay Khalilzad, the US interlocutor with the Taliban. “We have told him that existing political and constitutional structures also have to be safeguarded,” the source said.

New Delhi is also planning to continue with developmental projects in Afghanistan, notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s jibe about India building libraries. “We have a commitment of $3 billion, and have spent more than $2 billion. We will continue to work on those projects,” sources said.

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Assets in Afghanistan built with Indian funds and support include the new Parliament building, the showpiece Friendship Dam, a highway to Iran and a children’s hospital, apart from schools and scholarship schemes, food assistance and other projects.