In a dramatic development with strategic, political and security repercussions for India, the United States and the Taliban said Friday that they will seal a political settlement on February 29 at the end of a weeklong period of “violence reduction” starting midnight in Afghanistan.
The deal could become one of the major talking points during the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump on February 24-25.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the agreement, which will reduce US presence in the region, will be signed upon the successful implementation of an understanding with the Taliban on a “significant” and nationwide reduction in violence.
Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson as saying that “both parties agreed to sign the finalised accord in the presence of international observers”. Both sides would also make arrangements for the release of prisoners, the Taliban said. Afghan, international and Taliban forces will observe the reduced violence period.
There has been no official word from New Delhi yet, but the deal is of some concern to the Indian establishment. More so, because the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan carries harsh memories from the 1990s, especially of the IC-814 hijack crisis that ended with the release of Masood Azhar. Azhar later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terror outfit that has claimed several Indian lives — from the Parliament attack in 2001 to the Pulwama attack in 2019.
Over the last two years, New Delhi had kept a close watch on meetings between the US and Taliban negotiators. It has been briefed by the US interlocutors, especially US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who has travelled to India several times and recently met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar recently at the Munich Security Conference.
Apart from the US, India has engaged in regular talks with other active players, like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and the political forces in Afghanistan, on this issue.
While many Western observers believe the agreement could represent a chance for peace in the region, New Delhi has been cautious on the issue as it gives strength to Pakistan, which has been a long-time benefactor of the Taliban.
Though New Delhi has softened its position over the years on engaging with the Taliban, India has always maintained that it has three “red lines”, which it spelt out last year when the US, Russia and China were conducting negotiations with the Taliban.
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 was often sidelined by international interlocutors engaging 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”.
With the deal announced Friday, India will closely track the fate of the Ashraf Ghani government, which just got re-elected. Under Modi, India has developed a close relationship with Ghani, and both have been on the same side on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
The second red line is 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. Delhi will again monitor whether the “new Taliban” — as Western interlocutors claim — will respect these markers from the last two decades.
The third is 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 threats from terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda, Islamic State — and also, Pakistan-based outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed that could relocate.
India has always pushed for a peace and reconciliation process that is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled — and, in a nutshell, counter the Pakistan military establishment’s influence over Kabul.
India has differed with the US on issues linked to the Afghan process, and that is expected to play out in the next few months and years. But the situation, South Block insiders feel, is different now since India figures much more in US calculations than in 1990, when it last left the region in the lurch.
There is a sense of cautious optimism that Washington will not hurt India’s interests in the long-term, this time. “In 1990, we were not part of their concern. Now, we are part of their calculus…so there is a sense that the US will not jeopardise India’s interests,” sources said.
While Delhi has never negotiated with the Taliban — except after the IC-814 hijack — it was part of Moscow-led talks with the Taliban in November 2018, which two former Indian diplomats attended as “non-official representatives”.
Although some within the strategic establishment have argued for engaging with the Taliban, the foreign policy establishment has so far shied away from doing so. With the new US-Taliban deal, New Delhi may have to recalibrate its position.
Former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, who was one of the Indian interlocutors during the IC-814 hijack, told The Indian Express, “For almost the last two years, I have maintained that India should engage with Taliban because every country that mattered began doing so.”
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