Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat If there was any ambiguity created on Wednesday by Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat’s remarks at the “Raisina Dialogue” held in New Delhi, it was dispelled the following day at his annual press conference. Nevertheless, it does seem that the soldier has needlessly stepped into slush. Gen. Rawat’s widely reported first observation was that there should be talks with the Taliban in the context of Afghanistan, but these should be “without preconditions”.
If this seemed like gobbledygook, since the Taliban have set no preconditions in talking to any international partner of Afghanistan, the Army Chief was more direct at his press conference on Thursday, where he observed: “Do we have an interest in Afghanistan? If yes, then we can’t be out of the bandwagon... Should we in some way be a part of the talks? We should not be left out.”
Over the years, since the time of President Hamid Karzai, the Taliban have refused to deal directly with the Afghan government. Their position is that Afghanistan is an “occupied country” and the Kabul government is a “puppet” of the United States. As such, while refusing to hold talks with the Afghans, the Pakistan-based extremist faction has had no hesitation negotiating with the Americans, or engaging any foreign country, including Russia, China, and Iran.
On the other hand, India was the only major regional player that had preferred not to talk to the Taliban. New Delhi’s consistent position was that international engagements with the Taliban should be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. This formulation wasn’t going anywhere. The various rounds of discussions between the Taliban and others — at various times the US, China and recently Russia, to say nothing of some Europeans (like at Chantilly in France) — over time have appeared to be Pakistan-owned and US-led. This is a reality that India too eventually has had to accept. Late last year, New Delhi despatched a non-official delegation comprising two former ambassadors for the Moscow talks since the Afghan government had also sent a non-official delegation.
It’s clear by now that India has come around to the position of being non-formulaic on talks with the Taliban. This is indicated by New Delhi’s participation in the Moscow discussions. Therefore, it is hard to fathom why Gen. Rawat got himself into the subject of Afghanistan at all.
If he hadn’t, he might not have got himself into a pickle over Kashmir, whose leading politicians have predictably asked him why New Delhi wasn’t engaging the separatist Hurriyat Conference in talks while it was busy advocating talks with the Taliban and espousing the cause of “autonomy” for the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.