By Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy*
In the backdrop of a US-backed negotiated settlement attempt in Afghanistan gaining momentum, the debate on talking to the Taliban has resurfaced in India, particularly through May 2020. There may be some potential advantages India could gain by talking to the Taliban but these are still notional at this juncture. Therefore, India’s decision-making will need to consider more than just a basic binary of talking or not talking.
In May 2020, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as the US Department of State’s outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, strongly urged that India engage with the Taliban. The Taliban has also sought engagement with India.
On 18 May, the Taliban’s Doha-based Spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, made seemingly conciliatory remarks regarding the group’s stance on India, stating that the Taliban “does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.” In a 19 May interview, he derided those in India questioning the merits of talking to the group as “not speaking for the interests of the people of India.”
Despite Shaheen’s claim of non-interference, the Taliban has not yet indicated such plans or its enforcement ability for better relations with India. This is relevant because the Haqqani Network continues to be an integral part of its structures, and the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda and other terror outfits targeting India, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), etc, is still active.
Furthermore, Shaheen’s dismissive remarks of 19 May regarding Indians echo a divisive rhetoric the Taliban has for long practiced vis-à-vis Afghans who raise critical questions regarding the group’s conduct or intentions. This is pertinent given how, in Afghanistan, there is a willingness for reconciliation with Taliban members but not with the group’s ideology.
Revelations contained in the May 2020 UN report on the status of the Taliban’s linkages and decision-making agency inspire no confidence. In the absence of the Taliban demonstrating tangible actions to enforce its stated intentions (in the US-Taliban agreement and elsewhere), it might not be beneficial for India to commence direct talks at this stage. Doing so would aid international legitimisation of the Taliban prematurely, which will not only undermine the Afghan government’s negotiating power during the intra-Afghan negotiations (IAN), but also contribute towards setting undesirable precedents, such as side-lining a sovereign government and giving mileage to a terrorist group.
If Taliban leaders genuinely wish to establish a non-adversarial relationship with India, they should be okay with such engagement beginning after the group has ended insurgency and been assimilated into Afghan society by peaceful means. The only scenarios where this would not apply are:
a) If the Taliban’s intentions towards India are conditional upon New Delhi commencing direct engagement with the group before or during the IAN
b) If direct India-Taliban talks at this juncture is not a necessity but merely something that delivers the Taliban tactical and narrative gains through New Delhi’s legitimisation of them.
Neither of the two scenarios nor current ground realities warrant a policy change from India.
In India, both those for and against talks seem to agree upon one scenario as a potentiality. If Taliban members are assimilated into Afghanistan’s governance structures via an inclusive, Afghan-led, -owned, and -controlled process, those members may eventually be inclined to shake off the Pakistani yoke to act more independently. While this argument has potential, sweeping policy change cannot rely solely on the future prospect of a singular hypothetical scenario. However, if New Delhi opts to formally begin communication with the Taliban before the IAN concludes, it would be prudent for India to:
a) Initiate communication only after the IAN begins and shows meaningful progress
b) Refrain from high-level engagement from the Indian side—i.e. cap it at ambassador-level
c) Set terms and conditions for commencement, coordination, and continuation of such engagement. This would involve compartmentalising engagement into different stages, with progression to each stage conditional upon the Taliban’s delivery of certain tangibles; and institutionalising prior coordination between New Delhi and Kabul as part of the engagement framework
d) Determine the preferred venue—for e.g., New Delhi need not play host to the Taliban for talks. Frequent international travel by the Taliban to meet with government representatives ends up contributing to the group’s international legitimisation prematurely
e) Determine issues New Delhi will and will not discuss—for e.g., focus on current issues of concern to India that pertain specifically to the Taliban. Issues such as future economic cooperation, which falls within the official government category, should be outside of the purview of such a template
f) Set publicity protocols—i.e. determine information that will be made available publicly at each stage, timing, and the platforms.
Since July 2018, when direct US-Taliban talks began, a considerable portion of international engagement with the group has taken place on the basis of the Taliban’s rhetoric of action in the future. In its rhetoric, the Taliban has punctuated claims regarding commitment to peace, women’s rights, compliance with international law and norms, etc, with ambiguous caveats.
Therefore, New Delhi’s policy choices on engaging with the Taliban will have to be based on its own priorities, as well as the group actually delivering on its commitments. India’s strategy will need to take into account the timing, format, and content of talks as equally important factors if New Delhi is to benefit in a way that is long-lasting and value-based. At all times, Afghanistan’s own efforts must be centre stage.
*Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is Deputy Director, IPCS.