India reaches out to regional partners including China as US seeks deal with Taliban

NEW DELHI: As the Donald Trump administration seeks to unilaterally cut a deal with the Taliban, the Indian government has conveyed to the US that any such agreement must safeguard existing political and constitutional structure in Afghanistan and that India doesn't favour installation of any interim government in the country which goes to polls in July. 

TOI has also learnt that India is looking to open a dialogue with China on the crisis-like situation in Afghanistan brought about mainly by what is seen by many as a hasty and irresponsible attempt by the Trump administration to declare victory and get out of the country, almost half of which is now controlled by the Taliban. 

The government has expressed its reservations before the US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who visited India last month, said people familiar with India's position. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. 

While even Army chief Bipin Rawat has spoken about the need for India to join the "bandwagon" of countries who are engaging the Taliban, the government clearly has no intention of wading into what may turn out to be another Afghanistan quicksand. Elaborating on India’s position, a source recalled how the government’s decision not to meddle in the Maldives and Sri Lanka recently paid India dividends. 

While India acknowledges US compulsion in engaging the Taliban (it said last week it favours inclusive political settlement), it remains worried about statements coming out of Kabul that the US has kept even the Afghanistan government in the dark about its recent talks for a "peace deal" with the Taliban. 

Recalling that a large chunk of its $3 billion development assistance commitment has already been realised, the government has also made the point before the US that Afghanistan, keeping in mind India’s claim over PoK, shares boundary with India and that India has serious security and economic interests in the country. 

India has emphasised before the US that it is the only country with significant economic assets on the ground and that its continuing engagement will depend on its partnership with Kabul specifying the latter’s needs and requirements. 

"Not doing things in haste doesn’t mean that India isn’t active. We remain engaged with all factions including the Pashtuns. India believes any action or articulation of its position in haste can be counter-productive," said the source, adding that the situation was being monitored at the top level and that India remained engaged with regional partners like Iran and also Russia. 

India will soon for the first time also be discussing the developing situation with Beijing. 

India and China have been looking to work together in Afghanistan since the 2018 Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan but have not yet had discussions on recent developments. 

The source, however, ruled out security talks on Afghanistan under any new format and said these will be made a part of the now frequent bilateral exchanges. Like India, and despite its resolute backing of Pakistan, China is worried about likely instability in Afghanistan following US withdrawal. It remains particularly worried about the activities in western China of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which is said to have links with both al-Qaida and Taliban. 

While Indian authorities acknowledge that the US-Taliban dialogue has again underscored the centrality of Pakistan, which continues to exercise influence over many top Taliban leaders, in any peace deal in Afghanistan, they say there is no question of India looking to scale down its economic engagements with the Kabul government in the near future. 

According to a leaked preliminary draft framework currently being discussed by the US with Taliban, the two sides are considering the possibility of delaying elections which are due in July and instead forming a transitional government which would include Taliban. This interim government will apparently then work to amend the Constitution and then hold fresh elections. India though has told Khalilzad that India will not support any move to install an interim government. 

With assistance exceeding $3 billion, India is the largest donor to Afghanistan in the region. The government sees its partnership with Afghanistan as based on five pillars — infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, connectivity, capacity-building and economic development. India’s infrastructure projects, like the Zaranj-Delaram road and Salma Dam, which has been generating electricity since 2016 and releases water to irrigate 75,000 hectares of land, are said to have generated goodwill for India in Afghanistan, according to the government. 



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