India should talk directly to Taliban, says U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad
This story first appeared in The Hindu
India should discuss its concerns on terrorism directly with the Taliban, said U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, adding that he had discussed how India could play a “more active role” in the Afghan reconciliation process during his talks in Delhi on Thursday.
“India is an important force in Afghanistan and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place,” Mr. Khalilzad told The Hindu in an exclusive interview.
The envoy said India had a “significant role” in Afghanistan’s development, but paradoxically, doesn’t play a role in the international peace efforts. “India and Afghanistan have historic ties, and I believe that dialogue between India and the Taliban is important, and it would be important that issues of concern like this [terrorism] are raised directly,” he added.
This is the first time the U.S. has publicly suggested an engagement between India and the Taliban. New Delhi, that still considers the Taliban a terror group allied to Pakistan, has thus far distanced itself from any talks.
During their meeting on Thursday, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had raised concerns over increasing violence in Afghanistan and the need to protect minorities including Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.
Mr. Khalilzad, the architect of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, travelled to Doha, Delhi and Islamabad, in an effort to iron out an impasse in the agreement over the release of prisoners and intra-Afghan negotiations. While recognising concerns over the Doha agreement, he told The Hindu that there “was no alternative” to it and hoped that India would engage “all forces” in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
The full text of the interview:
It is rare for anyone to be travelling during the Coronavirus lockdown, let alone high officials. Tell us what brought you to the region, and how your meetings went?
The mission is to encourage movement towards the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed at Doha in February. Part of the Confidence Building Measures leading to intra-Afghan negotiations, is that both the Taliban and the Afghan government have to release prisoners on both sides. Secondly that there must be a reduction in violence compared to the period before the agreement was signed, and thirdly, that in order to get lasting peace and bring the long war in Afghanistan to an end, we should open the door to negotiations for a political roadmap and a permanent comprehensive ceasefire.
The territory of Afghanistan must not be used against the United States, our allies and in fact the world. So peace for Afghanistan, and security for the world from Afghanistan are our two goals, and I was encouraged by my meetings on this trip. International support for peace in Afghanistan is important and Indian support in particular was the focus of my mission [to Delhi].
Is the focus on India’s role just lip service? India is not at present involved in any of the regional formats that are currently discussing Afghanistan’s future…
That’s an excellent question, because this is a paradox, that on the one hand India has such a significant role when you look at development of Afghanistan and India has such a long history with the people of Afghanistan… But when it comes to international efforts, India does not yet have the role that it could. Part of that may have been a choice to pursue its role bilaterally, but I think as the peace process gets more serious, and the U.S.- Taliban agreement goes into the next stages, we want India to take a more active role in the peace process, and that was a key focus of our discussion in Delhi.
Did you also discuss the possibility of India opening direct, public talks with the Taliban during your meetings, something India has rejected thus far?
It is for India to decide its role, but I do think engagement between India and all the key players in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the government but also in terms of political forces, society and the Afghan body politic, is appropriate given India’s regional and global position. India is an important force in Afghanistan and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place.
Has India expressed a desire for a role beyond humanitarian assistance, economic and reconstruction, in terms of mediation, or more security assistance?
India has a key role in the development and supported so many important projects there. We did discuss what kind of future role India might want to play. When it comes to the peace process, I can tell you India is considering a more active role, and we in the U.S. are supportive of India’s engagement in the international process.
Specifically, could India help in the current impasse within the Afghan polity, in particular between President Ghani, and former CEO Dr. Abdullah?
India has good relations with several leaders in Afghanistan and like the U.S., India supports the end of the political crisis in Kabul to bring about a more inclusive government. I am encouraged by the decision of the political leaders: President Ghani, Dr. Abdullah, (former) President Karzai, and other leaders to form an inclusive negotiating team. I found that India and the U.S. are on the same wavelength with regard to the resolution of the internal political crisis and the establishment of an inclusive government.
The U.S.-Taliban deal is being seen in India as a deal for withdrawal, not a peace deal. There are concerns that this is not an Afghan owned and led agreement, there is no ceasefire, no Taliban commitment to the constitution. In fact the U.S. seems to be putting the Taliban at par with the democratically elected govt in Kabul. Your response?
The U.S. -Taliban agreement is a necessary step to transition to the Afghan owned process. We have a specific commitment from the Taliban not to allow terrorism from territory they control, and should they join a future government that they will not allow Al Qaeda and other terror groups to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies, and indeed the rest of the world. That’s an important achievement. So while we are not as far along as we or India would have liked, we don’t see a better alternative to this process.
The war has gone on. The question is without a political solution how do we get to a military solution and vice versa? So it is necessary to have this first step. The US Taliban agreement is a necessary step to transition to the Afghan owned process. We have a specific commitment from the Taliban not to allow terrorism from territory they control, and should they join a future government that they will not allow Al Qaeda and other terror groups to launch attacks against the US and its allies, and indeed the rest of the world. That’s an important achievement. After all the US came to Afghanistan for this purpose, to ensure Taliban breaks from Al Qaeda and doesn’t allow it and other groups to use Afghan soil to attack us. My aim on this trip is as much to ensure that the release of prisoners is sorted out. So while we are not as far along as we or India would have liked, we don’t see a better alternative to this process. And therefore we will persist, in speaking to the government, the Taliban, neighbours and international players to achieve peace.
For India, it is the groups in Afghanistan that target India, which are backed by Pakistan that are a worry, and the US Taliban agreement doesn’t mention those.
Look, our strong position is that there shouldn’t be [terror] sanctuaries on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and I believe that for peace to come to Afghanistan, there is a need for good relations amongst the neighbours and support for peace. I believe that the Pakistani leadership has supported the peace process, and thinks that the time has come for economic strategy, for trade and development and for Afghanistan to become a platform for regional cooperation and connectivity. We encourage and support those objectives. India and Afghanistan have historic ties, and I believe that dialogue between India and the Taliban is important, and it would be important that issues of concern like this [terrorism] are raised directly.
Is the fact that India and Pakistan are not talking to each other, an impediment to the process in Afghanistan, and did you discuss that with Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Doval?
If we are talking about reconciliation in Afghanistan, support from Pakistan, India and the international community is very important. For peace there must be an agreement broadly accepted across Afghanistan, and both India and Pakistan have an important role to play in that. I also think both can benefit from peace in Afghanistan, in terms of security and economic development. We are focused on violence and war at present but should peace come to Afghanistan, it could actually help transform the region towards more cooperation and more connectivity for all the countries involved, and that will be good for India and Pakistan.