To all appearances, India's Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat set the cat among the pigeons in the second week of January when he advocated that India should talk to the Taliban “without preconditions” in the interest of peace and stability in the region.'
This was tom-tommed as a big shift from the government of India's long-standing policy that the peace process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, Afghan-controlled and with the participation of the government in Kabul. It made a splash because the Taliban was talking to the US ahead of the latter's plan to pull out from its 17-year-long military engagement in Afghanistan which has cost over a trillion dollars and claimed tens of thousands of lives besides turning it into a terrorist hub.
However, General Rawat was only taking forward the ball set rolling exactly two months before. The policy shift was already public by November 8, when two former diplomats, Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan went to Russia for the Moscow format of talks on the Afghan peace process. Technically, Sinha and Raghavan did not represent Government of India (GoI) – their participation was “non-official”, in Track II mode.
Raghavan, who was India's High Commissioner to Pakistan, is Director-General of the GoI think tank, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). Sinha, a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, was Ambassador to Afghanistan. There was nothing really unofficial about their non-official presence in the Moscow format of talks where the Taliban and Afghanistan's High Peace Council delegations were also present.
By the time General Rawat stood up to say his piece, official India had already held at least one round of non-official talks. Just a day before General Rawat spoke, the Taliban had called off talks with the US as they did not want the Afghan government to be in the talks. The Taliban did this a day before the fourth round of talks with US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Besides the US, Russia and China, the Taliban's old supporters, namely, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan were also back in the game as stakeholders in the peace process. Iran also joined the game. It went claimed “influence” over the Taliban and offered to use that influence in India's favour.
In the nearly two decades since the Taliban hosted the hijacked Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar -- when external affairs minister Jaswant Singh went to Taliban territory to get the hostages released in return for two Pakistani terrorists – GoI has also developed lines to the Taliban.
It is obvious that the Taliban holds the whip hand in the Afghan peace process. It is set on talking to the US – on its own terms – because the US is the occupation force to be sent packing. US General Austin Miller's narrow escape from the October 18 shooting, which killed Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq among others in a room, seems to have convinced the Americans that they can no longer continue their military occupation. This is underscored by the perception that the Taliban “allowed” General Miller to “escape” – to let the US know that they can pick their targets when they choose to.
With the US bowing to the Taliban's terms, others, including India, cannot risk lagging behind. The Taliban's tough talk and a tougher line on talking terms is suspected to be based on the covert support of some powerful country. That apart, there is a growing perception, including in New Delhi, that the Taliban is involved in many behind-the-scene engagements; and, these are what enable it to call the shots.
Thus, negotiating India's place in the peace process is as much a diplomatic and strategic minefield as Afghanistan was during the worst phase of America's war in that country.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)