Karzai wants India to be part of Taliban talks

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New Delhi: The memorandum of understanding between the Afghan intelligence service (NDS) and Pakistan’s ISI no longer stands. Speaking to a small group of journalists during his recent visit here, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, “No, the MoU does not stand. We (President Ashraf Ghani and I) had a conversation on that which I hope will bear fruit. It’s something Afghan people have rejected, because it is against Afghan interests.”

Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah will be visiting India on September 17 for talks with the Indian government at a time when Afghanistan-Pakistan ties have hit another low point. Karzai said he hoped Prime Minister Narendra Modi would travel to Kabul to inaugurate the new parliament building constructed by India. Indian sources said in the past 15 months, since the Modi government took office, there had been six summit level meetings between Modi and Karzai followed by Ghani. Ghani also held long discussions with NSA Ajit Doval, foreign secretary S Jaishankar and deputy NSA Arvind Gupta.

Asked whether India had been unfair with the new government in Kabul, Karzai parried, but urged India to engage more deeply with the Ghani government. “The two countries are intrinsically linked due to common security interests,” he said. India, he added, was forthcoming with education and development assistance but “hesitant” on security assistance. In fact, he said India should “seek” to be present in the room during the peace talks with the Taliban. “India, Iran and Russia should all be present,” he said.

The second round of Taliban peace talks blew out of the water when it was announced on July 29 that the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been dead for over two years, damaging both the talks and Pakistan’s credibility. The popular backlash against the NDS-ISI pact also saw Ghani walking back from it openly, helped by the fact that the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, unleashed a deadly bombing campaign in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan.

On September 1, weeks after stating that Pakistan had declared “war” against Afghanistan, Ghani in a strongly worded statement refuted Sartaj Aziz’s contention that Pakistan had rolled up the activities of the Haqqanis in their country. “There is credible evidence that the leadership, command and control center, support infrastructure and sanctuaries of the Haqqani network and other terror groups are located inside Pakistan. The international community has also realized that the sanctuaries of terrorist groups including the Haqqani network, is located inside Pakistan. The latest measure by the United States to condition its military assistance to Pakistan in exchange for Islamabad’s actions against the Haqqani network, denial of these facts weakens the ground for cooperation between the two countries in the war against terrorism,” Ghani said.

Ghani prioritized closer relations with Pakistan last year, even visiting Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi which raised eyebrows in New Delhi. The NDS-ISI pact brought in an unarticulated strain between Afghanistan and India. However, Pakistan, sources said, overplayed its hand – the Taliban unleashed a particularly vicious spring offensive in Afghanistan in the past few months. Ghani’s gamble that he could incentivize the Pakistan army-ISI combine to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table was blown by the disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death, and the realization that Pakistan had been perpetuating a lie for the past couple of years.

Abdullah’s visit comes after two big donor conferences in Afghanistan, RECCA and the Japan-led conference. India, like the US, Germany and China, was represented at the functional level, said officials. Indian assistance to Afghanistan has plateaued out in recent months as India has focused on completing the ongoing projects on the ground. Politically, this has signaled a “wait and watch” on the Ghani government by India – if Ghani continues to lean towards Pakistan, India would be forced to rethink its engagement priorities. But recent events have appeared to make Ghani rethink his own, some would say, uncritical outreach to Pakistan. Questioned whether India could trust Ghani, Karzai said, “Ghani has also criticized Pakistan in recent days. Things will change.”

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