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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Foreign Secretary dashes to Kabul as Taliban, US sign pact today

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told President Ashraf Ghani that India stands with Afghanistan for “strengthening national unity, territorial integrity, democracy, plurality and prosperity” in the country and bringing an “end to externally sponsored terrorism”.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: February 29, 2020 6:50:17 am
Afghan policemen keep watch in Kabul, Friday. (Reuters)

A day ahead of the signing of a peace pact between the US and Taliban in Doha, the government Friday sent Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Kabul where he conveyed “India’s support to the government and the people of Afghanistan” in their efforts to bring “peace and stability through an inclusive & Afghan-led, Afghan-owned & Afghan-controlled efforts”.

Shringla told President Ashraf Ghani that India stands with Afghanistan for “strengthening national unity, territorial integrity, democracy, plurality and prosperity” in the country and bringing an “end to externally sponsored terrorism”, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said — “externally sponsored terrorism” is a reference to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

Besides Ghani, the Foreign Secretary also met Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, First Vice President-elect Amrullah Saleh, Acting Foreign Minister Haroon Chakhansuri and National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib. Essentially, he is meeting all the key figures in Kabul, even as India is sending its envoy in Doha to attend the US-Taliban deal ceremony.

During his meeting with Abdullah, Shringla discussed India’s long-standing multifaceted cooperation with Afghanistan. They agreed that “independent, sovereign, democratic, pluralistic and inclusive” Afghanistan would promote peace and prosperity in the region.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 28, 2020. (Reuters)

“Foreign Secretary conveyed India’s steadfast support for democracy, plurality, national cohesiveness and socio-economic development and enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the MEA spokesperson said.

Acting Foreign Minister Chakhansuri and Shringla “reviewed and positively assessed” developments in bilateral strategic partnership. “Foreign Secretary conveyed India’s support for the people of Afghanistan in their pursuit for sustainable peace, security and development,” Kumar said.

Read | Afghanistan: 100,000 civilian casualties over last decade — UN

The Mohib-led Afghan National Security Council, in a tweet, said Mohib met Shringla who reiterated India’s support for an “Afghan-led, -owned, & -controlled peace process”. It also said that the Afghan NSA appreciated India’s offer of assistance to combat COVID19, noting that Afghanistan is currently able to manage.

Shringla’s dash to Kabul came at a time when India, in its first step towards engaging with the Taliban, decided to send its envoy to the signing of the peace pact between the US and Taliban in Doha on Saturday, according to sources.

This is the first time that an official representative will attend a ceremony where the Taliban representatives will be present. When Taliban was in power between 1996 and 2001, India did not recognise it diplomatically and officially.

Sources said India received an “invitation” from Qatar, and after deliberations at the highest level, the government decided to send India’s Ambassador to Qatar, P Kumaran.

Sources said Shringla’s visit needs to be seen in the context of India engaging with all stakeholders and political, state and non-state actors in Afghanistan. On February 20, India had congratulated President Ghani on his re-election following the announcement of final results of the Presidential elections by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, one of the few countries to do so.

India has been a key stakeholder in the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan, but has played a marginal role in the peace and reconciliation process. Now, faced with the new reality in Afghanistan, India is moving to diplomatically engage with the Taliban. India’s presence at the agreement-signing ceremony is the first sign of a possible diplomatic opening. New Delhi has vital strategic stakes in Afghanistan, where it has worked on several development projects.

In fact, earlier this week, US President Donald Trump had briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the situation in Afghanistan and the deal since the signing of the pact has strategic, security and political implications for India.

What happens to the Ashraf Ghani government will be something that Delhi will watch. Under Modi, India has developed a close relationship with Ghani, and both have been on the same side regarding Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Shringla’s outreach to top officials in the Ghani government is a step in that direction.

Though India has softened its position on engaging with the Taliban, it has always maintained that it has three red lines — which it spelt out when the US, Russia and China were conducting their negotiations with the Taliban last year.

The first is that “all initiatives and processes must include all sections of the Afghan society, including the legitimately elected government”. This is important as, in the past, the Afghan government has often been sidelined by international interlocutors when they engaged with the Taliban. This also means that there is acceptability in Delhi about talking to the Taliban — since they represent a “section of the Afghan society”. India’s decision to send its diplomats to Doha and Kabul is in sync with this diplomatic approach towards the “new Afghanistan”.

Shringla’s visit is also a step in keeping with its second red line where it has maintained that “any process should respect the constitutional legacy and political mandate”. This means that the achievement of establishing democratic processes and human rights, including women’s rights, should be respected.

And, the third redline has been about the terrorist groups, which function with support from Pakistan. New Delhi has always maintained that any process “should not lead to any ungoverned spaces where terrorist and their proxies can relocate”. This is crucial for India, as it points to the threat from terrorist groups including the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which must not be allowed to operate there. Also, Pakistan-based terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed must not be allowed to relocate.

Shringla’s visit is aimed at gauging the sense on the ground about Pakistan’s influence, post-deal, and how empowered is the Ghani government after the rise of the Taliban.

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