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Rabbani's visit: Will India re-enter Afghan scene?

July 13, 2011 18:14 IST

The two-day visit to New Delhi of Professor Burhanudin Rabbani, chairman of the high peace council of Afghanistan, from July 14 will be an occasion for Indian leaders to have detailed discussions on the reconciliation process initiated in Afghanistan with the Taliban groups.

Prof Rabbani heads the high peace council, established by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in September 2010 to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan through initiating talks with the Taliban.

Prof Rabbani and his delegation will have discussions with his host, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and will call on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Krishna's invitation to Prof Rabbani to visit New Delhi for talks is a result of the change in Indian policy towards reconciliation with the Taliban.

Once strongly opposed to any talks with the Taliban, the Indian government has had to accept the growing mood towards a dialogue with the Taliban. Both the United States and the NATO countries that have troops in Afghanistan as well as the people of Afghanistan favour a reconciliation process.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul in May had been the first public indicator of the change in India's stance when he addressed the Afghan Parliament and later met Rabbani, a former Afghan president who is a member of Parliament.

Dr Singh told the Afghan parliamentarians that their nation had embarked upon a process of national reconciliation, and "we wish you well in this enterprise".

He added: "India will respect the choices you make. Our only interest is to see a stable, peaceful and independent Afghanistan living in peace with its neighbours."

India was forced to reverse its position on reconciliation talks as it was becoming isolated on the subject of the reconciliation process.

American and British officials acknowledge that they have, separately established what they term "preliminary contact" with different Taliban groups.

Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that contact had been made with some Taliban groups while British Secretary of State William Hague has said that his country had also played a role in initiating talks with some Taliban.

The Pakistani and Iranian governments and also the Turkish government have supported a dialogue process.

US President Barack Obama's decision to begin the draw down American troops from Afghanistan has given an added urgency to the reconciliation moves.

In these circumstances, India has taken the position that the peace process must be Afghan-led and the Taliban groups must accept the Afghan constitution, renounce the use of violence and cut themselves off from the radical militant groups.

The invitation to Prof Rabbani provides the opportunity to obtain a better understanding of the moves that have been initiated until now. He has visited Islamabad and Teheran, the two countries that have a significant stake in the peace process.

Pakistan had initially criticised the council even though the peace jirga (council of tribal elders) had approved the formation of the 68-member council.

The Pakistani government had expected to have a leading role in any initiative to reach out to the Taliban, especially the groups that are based in its northwestern tribal region, but it could not ignore the high peace council.

In a significant reversal of its stance, the Pakistani government decided to invite Prof Rabbani and a high council delegation to Islamabad for talks in January this year.

A high council delegation also visited Iran some time later.

Prof Rabbani, as a veteran leader of the mujahideen, has a vast network of contacts. He was a professor at Kabul University when he fled to Pakistan to fight against the Communists in Afghanistan in the 1970s.

He was part of the 'Peshawar group of seven', the seven mujahideen groups that were based in Peshawar and carried out the war against Soviet domination of Afghanistan.

Prof Rabbani's Jamait-e-Islami was the largest of the mujahideen groups. After the withdrawal of the Soviets and later the fall of the Najibullah government, Rabbani became the president of Afghanistan. He remained president from 1992 to 1996 and was the nominal head of the mujahideen forces that fought the onslaught of the Taliban.

An Indian official emphasised the importance of Prof Rabbani's visit, saying that there were reports that the high peace council has made contact with some Taliban groups and "we would like to know what kind of discussions have taken place."

Shubha Singh in New Delhi