New Delhi remained on the sidelines in signing of a US pullout agreement with the Taliban in Doha on Saturday, but hopes to play a role in the “intra-Afghan” dialogue that will follow between the Taliban, the government in Kabul and other Afghan factions.
Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, addressing a conference in Delhi on Monday downplayed the agreement in Doha that commits the US to pull out from Afghanistan by May 2021. “What we saw at Doha was not a surprise. Everybody knew something like this was happening. It was almost like finally seeing Pakeezah after 17 trailers of the movie,” he said.
Pakistan played a major role in bringing the Taliban to the table. Key Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Abdul Baradar, who signed the pullout agreement, have spent years in Quetta under the control of the Pakistan government.
“To my mind, the real negotiations will start now. Then we will have to see whether many of the assumptions that we had, how cohesive are the various players, what do they do, what are their demands. Finally does Taliban join a democratic set up or does a democratic set up follow [and] adjusts to the Taliban,” said Jaishankar.
Hinting at a possible Indian role in the “intra-Afghan dialogue” the MEA stated: “There is a lot of interest in various countries, like the neighbours of Afghanistan and those who have interests there. Who plays what role will take a little while to work out.”
India enjoys significant leverage in Afghanistan due to its enduring relationships with numerous non-Pashtun groups, and traditional contacts with Pashtun groups, though not the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul, which was not a party to the Doha pullout agreement, also has strong relations with New Delhi.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader shack hands after signing a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Feb 29, 2020. Photo: AP/PTI
India’s contacts with Pashtun leaders remained alive through the Taliban insurgency, thanks to a range of “small development projects,” that Indian development aid supported over the last 18 years in the Pashtun heartland of southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Jaishankar made clear New Delhi’s opposition to imposing the Taliban’s medieval worldview on an Afghanistan where there is now widespread acceptance of democracy, women’s rights, human rights and modern technology. The Doha pullout agreement does not bind the Taliban to protect these advances.
“I do believe that the last 18 years have brought about big changes [in Afghanistan]. I would remind people that this is not the Afghanistan of 2000-2001. To the US and to the West, our message has been that the achievements of the last 18 years, it is in global interest that those achievements are secured and protected,” said Jaishankar.
Alongside the “intra-Afghan dialogue” that is due to commence on March 10, Washington is to facilitate a Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue aimed at border security and ending terror safe havens.
Describing these as “issues for which right now there are no clear answers,” the MEA stated: “You are watching that space, I am watching that space and that space is going to evolve.”