Huge policy shift as India opens talks with Afghan Taliban, reports Hindustan Times

India has for the first time opened talks with the Afghan Taliban against the backdrop of the “rapid drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan,” reported Hindustan Times on Tuesday, quoting people with knowledge of the development.

New Delhi’s outreach to the Afghan Taliban is being headed by security officials and limited to Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived “outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran,” said the report.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought concerns about the ability of Afghan forces to hold the groups at bay without the support of international troops.

A classified U.S. intelligence agencies assessment has warned that Afghanistan could be taken over within two to three years if the US departs without ensuring a power-sharing deal among all major factions.

For decades, India has supported the government in Kabul while distancing itself from the Taliban. This was clear from a May 4 joint EU-India press statement on Afghanistan, which categorically said that India will not support a Taliban government in Kabul.

However, the report points to a “huge shift” in India’s Afghanistan policy. The perception that the Taliban is no longer a “monolithic organization” and some factions may not be completely under the sway of Pakistan has “gained ground in [Indian security establishment in] recent years,” the report says about India’s assessment of the Taliban’s current leadership.

“We have tried the earlier option of not engaging the Taliban and putting all our efforts into the Northern Alliance, but there has been a huge shift since…[some] think it might be better to have a line of communication with some Taliban,” an Indian security official aware of New Delhi’s outreach, was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

Last year, Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, urged India to engage with the Afghan Taliban and “directly discuss its concerns related to terrorism,” adding that Washington wants New Delhi to “take on a more active role in the Afghan peace process.”

The development comes amid reports that the Afghan peace process has stalled. A United Nations report earlier this month warned that the Taliban are not interested in the Afghan peace process and may still have close ties with Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, reports emerged that the US wants Pakistan to offer military bases to run its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan has ruled out the possibility of providing its military bases.

Last month, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters that Pakistan does not “intend to allow boots on the ground and no [U.S.] bases are being transferred to Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson, Zahid Hafeez Chaudri, has also rejected reports about the presence of a US military or airbase inside Pakistan. “There is no US military or airbase in Pakistan; nor is any such proposal envisaged,” Chaudri said in a statement last month.

However, he maintained that Pakistan and the US have a framework of cooperation in terms of Air Lines of Communication (ALOC) and Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) in place since 2001.

“No new agreement has been made in this regard,” he added.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is under pressure to find new bases for its counterterrorism and surveillance operations in the wake of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, reported The New York Times on Sunday.

“The CIA is seeking ways to maintain its intelligence-gathering, war-fighting, and counterterrorism operations in the country,” says the report, adding that the agency’s analysts are warning of the ever-growing risks.

In May, the Afghan Taliban warned its neighbors against allowing the US military to operate bases on their soil.

“We urge neighboring countries not to allow anyone to do so,” the Taliban said.

“If such a step is taken again, it will be a great and historic mistake and disgrace,” the group said, adding that they would “not remain silent in the face of such heinous and provocative acts.”