As government-nominated former Indian diplomats shared a table Friday with the Taliban for the first time at a multilateral meeting on Afghanistan, New Delhi said it was not going to talk to Taliban, and its presence at the Moscow format was not out of any “compulsion”. This was the first time since the IC-814 hijack in 1999 that Indian government representatives publicly engaged with the Taliban.
In Moscow, host Russia said no one should play “geopolitical games” in Afghanistan and participation of Taliban and Afghan High Peace Council representatives was aimed at creating conditions for direct talks.
Sources privy to the discussions Friday told The Indian Express that the Indian representatives — former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Amar Sinha and former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan T C A Raghavan — did not make any statement on behalf of New Delhi at the meeting.
“There were no statements by the Indian representatives, nor was there any document signed. It was an ice-breaking meeting,” the source said.
In opening remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “No one should think in terms of geopolitical games that may result in another transformation of Afghanistan into a field for competition between external players with drastic consequences both for the Afghans and their neighbours.”
He said the issues Afghanistan has been facing can be resolved only through political means.
“That said, we welcome the delegations of the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement,” Lavrov said. “Their participation in today’s event is intended to make an important contribution to efforts to create conditions for direct talks between the government, the Taliban movement, public and political circles.”
“We are determined to make every possible effort to facilitate the opening of a new page in the history of Afghanistan,” Lavrov was quoted saying by the state-run Tass news agency.
Lavrov said the conference was “aimed at building an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue in order to advance the national reconciliation process.”
“Russia supports the preservation of a united and indivisible Afghanistan in which all ethnic groups populating the country could live peacefully and happily. I have no doubts that the other participants of the Moscow format share this approach and that we all go by basic national interests of the Afghan people,” he said before the talks continued behind closed doors.
In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, in response to suggestions that India was talking to Taliban, said: “Where did we say that there will be talks with Taliban? We did not say that India will talk to Taliban.”
He also rejected suggestions that India had attended out of compulsion. “There was no compulsion for us to attend the meeting. We took a considered decision to attend the meeting at a non-official level,” he said.
He reiterated India’s position that it will support an “Afghan-led” reconciliation process. “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, attended the meeting, Sinha and Raghavan sat at the table.
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 (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) in the Ministry of External Affairs in the past.
“Our participation was decided only after consultations with the main actor in the process, the Afghan government. Since the Afghan Foreign Ministry did not attend and instead sent Afghan High Peace Council representatives, we decided to send people outside the Indian government,” a source told The Indian Express.
The Afghan High Peace Council is a government-appointed body tasked to talk to Taliban on the reconciliation process.
Apart from India, the Moscow meeting Friday was attended by representatives from the US, Pakistan, China, Iran and some Central Asian countries.