India on Thursday said it would participate, at a “non-official level”, in the Moscow format meeting on Afghanistan, which will be attended by a Taliban delegation. While the Afghan Foreign Ministry won’t participate in the meeting on Friday, the Afghan High Peace Council — a government-appointed body tasked to talk to Taliban on the reconciliation process — will be there. This is a significant development, and a major departure, since New Delhi has not participated in a multilateral meeting involving Taliban in the past. At the last meeting on Afghanistan hosted by Russia, India had sent Deepak Mittal, Joint Secretary in charge of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. But that meeting was not attended by Taliban representatives.
“We are aware that the Russian Federation is hosting a meeting in Moscow on November 9 on Afghanistan… Our participation at the meeting will be at the non-official level,” Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, said.
While New Delhi has taken a considered decision to join the meeting, it will not send a government official. Sources told The Indian Express that former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Amar Sinha, and former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, T C A Raghavan, will attend the meeting as India’s representatives.
Both Sinha and Raghavan, who are associated with government-funded think-tanks, have expertise and experience in dealing with the region. Sinha is a fellow with the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (a think-tank funded by MEA), and Raghavan is the director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs (another MEA-funded think-tank). Raghavan has also served as Joint Secretary
Sources said the Indian government took the decision to send former diplomats in consultation with the Afghan government. According to sources, India has participated in the multilateral meetings on Afghanistan in the past, aimed at providing security and stability in the conflict-torn country.
Moscow has said that the aim of the upcoming meeting is to help narrow the gaps in the approaches taken by the Afghan government and the Taliban to holding a direct intra-Afghan dialogue.
Maintaining that India supports “Afghan-led” reconciliation process, the MEA spokesperson said, “India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that will preserve unity and plurality, and bring security, stability and prosperity to the country. India’s consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled, and with the participation of the government of Afghanistan.”
While a five-member Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban’s political council in Qatar, will attend the meeting, the US has also confirmed its participation. Regional players like Pakistan, China and Iran are among the participants of the meeting hosted by Russia.
The first round of the Moscow format was held on April 14 last year, when India was represented by Mittal, along with deputy foreign ministers and senior officials from Afghanistan, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The US had declined to attend the discussions.
According to the Russian foreign ministry, the main issue on the agenda is the coordination of regional efforts to assist the process of national reconciliation, in the interest of restoring peace in Afghanistan. This format has given Moscow a leadership position in the Afghanistan situation, at a time when the US is ceding the space.
The second round, which was to be held on September 4 this year, was postponed. After the Afghan government cancelled its participation, India too followed suit on the pretext that it would be untenable for New Delhi’s representatives to share the table with a Taliban delegation — when Afghanistan’s democratically-elected government would be staying away. New Delhi has always maintained that it will engage with the elected government of Afghanistan, and participating in the meeting would have given legitimacy to the Taliban.
It is believed that the Afghan government backed out of the September 4 meeting under US pressure. But this time, it has managed to carefully balance Russian and US interests, as it is sending the Afghan High Peace Council’s representatives, instead of its foreign ministry representatives.