India’s challenges in talking with Taliban

By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan has set into motion a hastened process of negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban but India is a wait and watch mode more concerned about peace and stability in that war-torn country.  Nonetheless there is a concern in many quarters as to why India so far has failed to cultivate any relationship with Taliban?

This concern is unfounded because India has been using its backchannel diplomacy to reach out to the Taliban for many years but it has not broken any ice is another subject of discussion.

Indian officials first made direct contact with the Taliban in 2013, when senior Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef was given a visa to attend a conference in Delhi.  Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, but after 9/11 the Pakistani government arrested him and handed him over to the US. Zaeef was displeased with Pakistan and developed contacts with New Delhi.

Then the Taliban senior leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was at one point nudging India Russia, Iran to start a dialogue with the Taliban. Baradar was also arrested by Pakistan and handed over to the US. The US released him in 2018 and he was made to head Talib’s negotiating team in Qatar. Baradar is believed to have opened channels of negotiations with India, Russia, and Iran.

India has been showing interest in engaging the Taliban since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani failed to make any united front to confront the Islamists. Indian diplomats met some senior Taliban leaders in Moscow in 2018 where they country’s security concerns and Taliban leaders suggested India remain neutral and stop providing military support to the puppet government.

In early 2021, a Qatari official disclosed that Indian officials had met the Taliban leaders in Doha but this meeting was denied by the Indian officials. However, the veil of secrecy that was overlaid on India’s backchannel diplomacy was finally lifted, when MEA officially announced that India had its first formal diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. This was held on August 31, 2021, in Doha, Qatar. Indian envoy, Deepak Mittal, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of the Taliban’s Political Office in Doha.

Here, I like to mention that in 2012, I presented a paper entitled – “Bonn to Bonn – International Community’s ten years of engagement with Afghanistan,” at a seminar on Afghanistan organized at Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi.  In my presentation, I had argued that India has to reach out to the Taliban if it wants to play a larger role in Afghanistan.

A gentleman who belonged to the former diplomatic core furnished me a report prepared by the government that talked about India’s keen interest in the actors that comprised the Taliban at that point in time.

The report that was prepared sometime before 2012 said that negotiations with the Taliban were a most complex thing and India was not sure with whom it should talk in the Taliban camp. It further said that the Taliban is a faction-ridden organization and reconciliation with one group can become a source of animosity with the other.  Indian negotiators cannot satisfy all the groups and tackling several factions that needed careful consideration.

 The report said that there are three main Shooras of the Taliban. The Quetta Shoora is based in Quetta and is directly under the con control of Taliban head, Mullah Umar, who was killed in the US bombing later. The second is Peshawar Shoora, which was then under the control of Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The third was the Miramshah Shoora of the Haqqanis (Jalaluddin’s sons- Siraj and Nasir) comprising of Zadran tribes.

The report mentions the names of some individual commanders that become prominent and had established their independent following. Maulvi Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantanamo inmate who was released by the US and emerged as Combat Operation Commander. Another prominent leader was Maulvi Hassan Rahmani, considered to be ideologically close to Mullah Umar. Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim the commander of the Taliban’s mobile field reserves. He was an ally of Mullah Akhtar Mansour and a rival to Maulvi Abdul Qayyum Zakir.

The Indian report mentioned that Mullah Abdul Razzaq Akhund, of Kandahar is one of the hardliner anti-US ideologues having a brutal record against its opponents. Amir Khan Muttaqi was a senior leader heading the propaganda wing of the Taliban. Maulvi Ishmael was the kidnappings expert. Maulvi Gul Mohd who hailed from the North and Sheikh Mohd Dost from the minority Pashai tribe was also mentioned in the report. There is Mullah Khairkhowa, who was told to be a moderate among the extremists.

The report says that the second string of Taliban leaders once close to the Mullah Dadullah faction has come close to Hakimullah Mehsud after the former’s death. Well, that was a broad spectrum of the Taliban that India was contemplating to hold negotiations in 2012.

Reading this report complied before 2012, it becomes clear that Taliban is not a monolithic organization Indian government is keeping track of the actors that make up the Taliban.

After 15 August 20021, when the Taliban has captured power in Afghanistan, it appears that the different factions among them have forged a national unity and the central actors in the Taliban camp find a place in the interim government. In such a situation, the task of the Indian interlocutors is how to engage the new Taliban leadership. Right now Taliban are power-drunk and negotiate with them is not an easy task. This can be ascertained by a media interview given by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghanistan’s wily warlord, now a politician who is supporting the Taliban regime.

 Hekmatyar said; ‘India should reconsider its failed policies regarding Afghanistan and make up for its historical blunders. First, it supported groups affiliated with the two occupiers (the Soviet Union and the United States) and now is giving asylum to the US puppets providing them a place to do anti-Afghanistan activities from its soil. This would certainly force the Taliban to act in kind, Hekmatyar said making the Taliban’s regime’s stand towards India.

It’s a foregone conclusion that India has to establish a direct link with the Taliban and make peace with the Jihadists. India’s attempt to find an alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan will be risking an investment of more than $3 billion that’s spent in development work there. India’s defiance of Taliban’s supremacy in Afghanistan will be an act that will jeopardize national interest.

Now, India making the official announcement that it’s in talks with the Taliban, some engagement with the current regime in Afghanistan has begun. India should carve out its own space telling its utility in the development of Afghanistan. India should refrain from playing devil to torpedo Pakistan and China’sinterests in Afghanistan as this may sink all its investments made there. And for this to happen, India first has to make itself comfortable with the idea of the Taliban ruling Afghanistan. This is the biggest challenge India faces at the moment while talking with the Taliban.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com.  You can access his old write-up; ‘Challenges in Talking with the Taliban; at New Age Islam – February 19, 2012

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