India sending two eminent non-officials — former senior diplomats Amar Sinha, a recently retired ambassador to Kabul, and T.C.A. Raghavan, until not long ago our high commissioner in Islamabad — to participate in the Moscow Format talks with Taliban representatives on Friday has more than exploratory value.
It breaks the mould — which was in the shape of the proposition that we should have nothing to do with the Taliban, in part because they are deemed to be captive playthings of Pakistan, Islamabad’s agents practically, and because they are seen as a terrorist outfit indistinguishable from, say, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. This departure is a positive step. Even if the Russia-initiated talks lead nowhere, India would have abandoned its earlier formulaic stance on the Taliban and shown its willingness to engage with the Afghan armed insurgent outfit.
It is not unlikely that in the foreseeable future, whether the Americans eventually depart Afghanistan or not (and it is unlikely they will), the Taliban could make a negotiated re-entry into the governing system of Afghanistan, possibly on a power-sharing basis. This is expected to be a complex, drawn out political process, and being at the Moscow conversation will give New Delhi a first-hand feel of how the Taliban seek to proceed and how their approach is received by Kabul.
For about a decade, the standard line, ritualistically stated by all concerned, is that the conciliation talks with the Taliban should be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. In reality, so far, it has been Pakistan-owned and US-led. There was no question of India being invited to such a table. Nor was India philosophically inclined to be in on such a venture.
But in the Moscow talks, Russia has invited, besides the US and Pakistan, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours — Iran, China, the Central Asian Republics, as well as India. Thus, this is a wide forum, strongly regional in character. Not accepting the invitation was unthinkable. India would have stuck out like a sore thumb, and would not have done justice to the immense, high-value political goodwill it enjoys across Afghanistan. New Delhi has rightly been careful to stitch its mast to the Afghan sail. Since Kabul sent a delegation of its High Peace Council, and not of the government direct, India too did not send an official delegation. Herein lies a message of solidarity and identification with the government of Afghanistan. India announced on Thursday that it sought not just an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process (the traditional formulation), but also one that was “Afghan-controlled”. This appears to be an expression of avoidable over-enthusiasm.