India sits at the table with Taliban after 17 years: All you need to know about the “non-official talks”

By Prarthana Mitra

For the first time since 2001, India reportedly engaged in ‘non-official talks’ with the Taliban at a Russia-hosted peace conference on Friday aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan. Delegates from the US, Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia were also invited to share the table with the eponymous armed group that has been waging an armed rebellion since 9/11.

India’s chance to craft history

According to news reports, India has sent former Indian envoys Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan to attend the conference at the “non-official level“. The last time India was called on by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, to engage the “good Taliban” in the peace process back in 2007, then president Pranab Mukherjee had refused to support it.

MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar told the media, ”India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that will preserve unity and plurality, and bring security, stability and prosperity to the country.”

He also reminded that the only clause for India to conduct formal talks with the Taliban was that the negotiating table should be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled conference and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan.” But in the light of Taliban’s increased control across Afghan countryside, India has bowed to the inevitable, with confidence that host Russia will not go against India’s interests.

Kumar reiterated that India’s stance remains consistent and the diplomats were sent to engage only at an informal level, after the move drew immense criticism from various political quarters which objected to the Moscow-format meeting on Afghanistan.

“India’s representatives are attending the talks in Moscow as part of efforts to bring peace and stability to the region. It’s not switching tack but evolving assessment of ground realities,” another senior official in the BJP administration told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

Reconciliation on the cards?

Earlier in August, Russia had been responsible for delaying peace talks following opposition from Kabul. The US, in the meantime, has been setting the stage for this showdown with both official and unconfirmed reports about meeting Taliban representatives over the past five years. In October, the Doha office confirmed that the US had agreed to demilitarise Afghanistan after a meeting with US diplomat, to bring an end to the 17-year-old war.

A five-member Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, leader of its political council in Doha, is reportedly in Moscow for the talks. The conference will also discuss the future of the group, whether it is headed for a complete dissolution or a merger with existing political parties. The group has set the withdrawal of all foreign forces, release of prisoners and lifting the travel ban as preconditions for any peace talks.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius