Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)

Talking to the Taliban

India’s engagement reflects new regional realities. The onus is now on the Taliban


For more than two years, in the backdrop of the United States (US)’S plans to draw down its military presence in Afghanista­n, there has been an intense debate in India’s strategic community about the utility of engaging with some elements of the Afghan Taliban. When the debate gained currency in 2019, there was hesitation about engaging with a force which had been so hostile to Indian interests. But the reluctance was also linked to domestic constraint­s. Engagement could well have triggered questions about the government’s anti-pakistan, anti-terror, hardline security stance and its unwillingn­ess to engage with Kashmir’s local formations when it was willing to talk to the Taliban. The Kabul-kashmir link played out in a different way. One reason the government pushed ahead with its constituti­onal changes in Jammu and Kashmir was to pre-empt the possible impact of radicalise­d militants shifting focus to the Valley. India also wanted to see how far the US would go with its plans.

As it became clear that the US intended to push ahead with the withdrawal plans, there was a renewed debate. As this newspaper reported, New Delhi has begun reaching out to Afghan Taliban factions and leaders, especially those outside Pakistan’s sphere of influence. There have also been positive feelers seeking engagement from within the Afghan Taliban leadership. The move is a reflection of the realisatio­n in capitals around the world that the Taliban will be part of the next ruling dispensati­on in Kabul. Retired diplomats and experts also point to the heterogene­ity within the Taliban, and that the Afghanista­n of today is not the same country of the mid-1990s. Despite the precarious position of the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani, there are elements in Kabul which strongly believe the post-2001 generation won’t be willing to accept an authoritar­ian regime and that even the Taliban apparently realises this.

For India, an outreach to the Taliban will be an intense game of catch-up as other players such as China, Russia and Iran have already started formal dialogue with the group. Despite the delay, the move is well-considered. It is an opportunit­y for India to make it clear, directly to the Taliban, that the gains of the past two decades cannot be squandered away, and convey its core security red lines. It is also a signal that Pakistan cannot be the sole arbiter of Afghanista­n’s future. India must continue to engage, cautiously, while the onus rests on the Taliban to prove it is not the same inimical force of the past, beholden to Rawalpindi.

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