India’s presence at talks with Taliban an important step, says Zalmay Khalilzad

India’s presence at talks with Taliban an important step, says Zalmay Khalilzad

The U.S. special envoy met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for a 90-minute discussion on the Intra-Afghan Negotiations process.

The Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) that are under way in Doha are an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process at last, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said, calling India’s decision to take part in the event involving the Taliban an “important step”. However, he said neither the U.S. nor India can ‘impose’ what political system Afghan representatives choose to adopt after the talks, nor is it yet certain that the start of talks will see the declaration of a ceasefire soon.

“India has always said there should be an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process and [External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar] repeated that stand,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an exclusive interview to The Hindu, shortly after his visit to Delhi on Tuesday.

“You could say that before it was an American-led Afghan process…but now it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process, with the delegations sitting across the table from each other, without a foreigner sitting in the room, for the first time. These groups, or warring parties, are now talking with each other to negotiate a roadmap for the future of their country,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

During his brief visit, Mr. Khalilzad and his U.S. delegation met Mr. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for a 90-minute discussion on the IAN process. While he welcomed India’s decision to join the event and to send a senior level delegation there, Mr. Khalilzad declined to comment on whether India has now decided to open talks with the Taliban directly and whether this was discussed between them.

In his speech at the IAN, Mr. Jaishankar had urged the negotiators not to lose the ‘progress’ that Afghanistan has made in the last two decades after the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a democratic country. When asked, however, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation said it was up to the Afghan negotiating teams to decide.

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“We obviously are not seeking to impose our political system on the Afghans, they have to decide that through negotiations, whether it is for an electoral democracy or some other formula,” Mr. Khalilzad said on concerns that the Taliban will seek to impose both Islamic Sharia code and dismiss the democratic process as they did when in power from 1996-2001.

“But there are universal values that we will watch, and we hope they will include, including the freedoms for minorities, women, rule of law, ending corruption, democracy, elections and a free press. We will see what they do…If they don’t respect those values, we will have to reassess at that juncture,” he said.

Mr. Khalilzad’s comments run counter to a statement by Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh that there would be no compromise on the “political framework” of Afghanistan.

“If [Taliban] want to violate the framework, it will harm them and their supporters,” Mr. Saleh was quoted as saying on Monday, adding that he had been assured of that by the U.S. delegation which includes Mr. Khalilzad and U.S. National Security Senior Director Lisa Curtis.

The differences underline Mr. Khalilzad’s task in the next few weeks as he continues to shuttle between Doha, where the Taliban negotiators are based, Kabul where he is speaking with the Ghani government, and Islamabad where he reportedly sought the Pakistan Army chief’s assistance in ensuring flexibility from the Taliban leadership based there on ensuring a reduction of violence, during a visit on Monday.

“We would expect to see our four-point agreement followed: ensuring no attacks on U.S. and its allies from Afghan soil, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Intra-Afghan Negotiations and then discussions on a permanent ceasefire. So, while I think a ceasefire is unlikely immediately, it is feasible as an outcome of the talks,” Mr. Khalilzad told The Hindu over a telephone call while returning to Doha.

Asked how he saw India’s role in the IAN going forward, Mr. Khalilzad said given Afghanistan’s “complex geography and the role of countries in the region and beyond”, the outcome of the talks must be supported by all to ensure Afghanistan’s ‘prosperity’ through trade, investment and connectivity.

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