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S Jaishankar, Shah Mahmood Qureshi may meet on Afghan talks sidelines this month

The two ministers will be participating at the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe on March 30, sources said. While they will be there at the conference to discuss the future of Afghanistan, they could meet on the sidelines.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: March 20, 2021 7:23:51 am
Shah Mahmood Qureshi, S JaishankarExternal Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

A day after Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa signalled a potentially radical shift by asking New Delhi to just create a “conducive environment” in Kashmir for the resumption of a dialogue towards peace between the two countries, it is learnt that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will be heading to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe towards the end of the month where, at a meeting on Afghanistan, he is expected to come face-to-face with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

The two ministers will be participating at the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe on March 30, sources said. While they will be there at the conference to discuss the future of Afghanistan, they could meet on the sidelines.

The Indian Express has learnt that diplomatic moves have already begun for a possible bilateral meeting, and Islamabad is learnt to have evinced interest.

The conference is part of the Istanbul Process, a regional initiative on security and cooperation for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, that was launched in November 2011 in Turkey.

The two ministers have not met, and the last time there was an opportunity was in New York in September 2019 during the meeting of the SAARC Foreign Ministers. But Qureshi walked into the meeting only after Jaishankar left after completing his speech.

Now, the dynamic is shifting, especially after Bajwa’s and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks over the last couple of days. This came after the two sides agreed to adhere to ceasefire agreements, which has held so far.

Bajwa, who spoke at a high-powered event called Islamabad Security Dialogue organised by Pakistan’s national security establishment, did not specify what he meant by “conducive” conditions in Kashmir, but it was significant that he did not mention Pakistan’s stated position about the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. Nor did he demand a rollback of the August 5, 2019 changes in Jammu & Kashmir.

This omission was significant, just as India’s omission of the fact that “talks and terror don’t go together” has been noted by Islamabad in the last couple of weeks.

“It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, process of sub-continental rapprochement will always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity. However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” the Pakistan Army chief had said, qualifying that “for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in (Kashmir).”

On Wednesday, speaking on the first day of the same event, Imran Khan, who has often said that his government and the Army are “on the same page”, said “India will have to take the first step. Unless they do so, we cannot do much.”

But this shift has taken place after back-channel talks between India and Pakistan over the last three and half months. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval led the Indian diplomatic initiative with Pakistan’s civilian-military leadership. And that has now paved the way for “more steps” towards peace in the coming weeks, as both sides remain “engaged” and “cautiously optimistic”.

While Doval met his Pakistan counterpart Moeed Yusuf — he holds the position of special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on security affairs — in a third country, he also had a communication channel open with General Bajwa.

Meanwhile, in Moscow Thursday, the United States was joined by Russia, China and Pakistan in calling upon Afghanistan’s warring sides to reach an immediate ceasefire. The talks there show Washington’s determination to win backing from regional powers for its plans.

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