After months of delays, the intra-Afghan negotiations finally got under way in Doha last Saturday. India decided to participate for the first time where an official has addressed a gathering including the Taliban. U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the driving force behind the American push for a reconciliation process was in Delhi briefly this week, and spoke to The Hindu over the phone about the road ahead.
Does India’s participation at the IAN inauguration denote a shift in its position on engaging the Taliban and did you discuss taking this further during your talks in New Delhi?
The Indian Foreign Minister did participate by giving a statement and there was an Indian delegation present at the inaugural. It was an important step. India has always said there should be an Afghan owned and Afghan led process and the FM repeated that stand in his address. Now certainly you could say that before it was an American-led Afghan process… now it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process with the delegations sitting across the table from each other, without a foreigner sitting in the room, for the first time. These groups, or warring parties, are now talking with each other to negotiate a roadmap for the future of their country. It was a good day for Afghanistan.
The statement issued after your meeting speaks of future cooperation between India and the U.S. on the IAN process… What kind of cooperation do you hope for?
Our primary focus is twofold…one is to see an agreement that has broad support in Afghanistan. Remember, this is not the Afghanistan of old times — this includes all tribes, ethnic groups, political groups and parties, the post 9/11 generation, women and civil society. We must have all on board for the agreement to work, and the resulting political order must be inclusive. Second, given Afghanistan’s complex geography and the role of countries in the region and beyond, the agreement must be supported by neighbours and regional powers. The international community has to support the settlement that Afghans arrive at, and encourage development, regional trade and connectivity with Afghanistan. We need to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t pose a threat to other countries, but becomes a source of prosperity in the world.
You were in Pakistan prior to coming to India. Did you get any assurances of support on the announcement of a permanent ceasefire, and do you see the Taliban agreeing to that soon?
A comprehensive and permanent ceasefire is desirable. We would like that to happen quickly. What is most important for every Afghan is to see a reduction of violence as soon as possible. Given the COVID situation, given humanitarian needs, temporary pauses in violence would be beneficial to the process. Ultimately, we expect to see our four-point agreement followed: ensuring no attacks on U.S. and its allies from Afghan soil, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Intra-Afghan Negotiations and then discussions on a permanent ceasefire. So, while I think a ceasefire is unlikely immediately, it is feasible as an outcome of the talks.
The last month has seen very rapid developments, including the pressure that was brought on the Afghan government to ensure the release of prisoners so the talks could start. How do you respond to the criticism that the IAN is being run on the timeline for the U.S. presidential elections in November?
When we signed the agreement, we expected IAN to begin on March 10. It has taken a long time to get to this point however, and we lost a degree of momentum due to the constant delays. So, I think the charge that we are now being driven by a political timeline is false. We can discuss reasons for the delay…Afghans had to make tough decisions to get to this point, and it didn’t happen as fast as the Afghan people would have liked. What is important is the talks are now under way.
How have the first few rounds of talks in Doha gone?
Their interactions so far have been good, constructive, and warm. After opening statements, the delegations met as a whole and created contact groups to decide rules and procedures for the talks. A draft has been produced and there will be further meetings to finalise the procedures and to set the agenda. So far so good.
External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said during his speech at the inauguration that the progress made in Afghanistan post Taliban must not be lost as an outcome of the talks. How confident are you that democracy, rights of minorities and women will be ensured?
On the Indian FM’s statement (to protect post-Taliban gains), we obviously are not seeking to impose our political system on the Afghans, they have to decide that through negotiations, whether it is for an electoral democracy or some other formula. But there are universal values that we will watch, and we hope they will include, including the freedoms for minorities, women, rule of law, ending corruption, democracy, elections free press. We will see what they do…If they don’t respect those values, we will have to reassess our relationship at that juncture.