Russia is nudging India to engage with the Taliban in view of the “upcoming launch of intra-Afghan talks”. In an interview, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special presidential envoy for Afghanistan, and head of the second Asia department in the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the “Taliban movement had changed” over the years, and the recent feelers that it had sent to open communication channels with India were a likely reflection of the Taliban’s “strategic vision” rather than a “tactical manoeuvre”. Edited excerpts:

Afghanistan appears to have reached another turning point, with the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces along with the likelihood of an intra-Afghan reconciliation dialogue. In your view, are there any grounds for optimism about Afghanistan’s future?

There are grounds for optimism about the future for sure. We commend the signing of an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban movement that took place in Doha on February 29, 2020, and are convinced that it paves the way for finding a lasting settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. We see that both sides — the U.S. and the Taliban — are interested in fulfilling this agreement and launching intra-Afghan peace talks as soon as possible.

Much will depend, however, on Kabul, namely, on how quickly the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will be able to complete the prisoner exchange with the Taliban by releasing 5,000 Taliban detainees for 1,000 soldiers and establish a negotiating team that the Taliban will be willing to engage in a dialogue with.

What are the main obstacles, domestic and external, in making make the intra-Afghan dialogue successful?

“The main prerequisite for a successful intra-Afghan dialogue is the willingness of the warring parties to negotiate with a view to bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan. However…, there are two major obstacles at the moment impeding the launch of the intra-Afghan talks: completion of the prisoner exchange and establishment of a negotiating team by Kabul. It is possible that once the negotiating process is launched, new difficulties will emerge. The dialogue between the warring parties will not be easy, but with a firm mutual commitment to reaching an agreement, the success will be achieved sooner or later.

Has the Taliban changed? Is it different from the Taliban of the mid-1990s? If so, what are the grounds for that change?

The Taliban movement has changed. There are multiple reasons for that. First and foremost, the Taliban has had enough time to learn from its mistakes. As we can see, it has abandoned some radical and jihadist principles. For instance, the Taliban now underlines that it is interested in maintaining constructive and good neighbourhood relations with all regional countries. The recent statement by the Taliban spokesman about non-interference in the internal affairs of other States issued with respect to the fake publications about the Taliban supporting Pakistan’s position on Kashmir is a good example.

At one point, Russia was criticised for engaging with the Taliban. Why did you start talking to the Taliban?

We have maintained and keep maintaining contacts with the Taliban to fulfil two tasks: ensure safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and encourage the Taliban to engage in a dialogue with the Afghan authorities and other political forces with a view to achieving lasting peace in the country. Our dialogue partner is the Taliban’s Political Office in Doha that is, as far as we know, mandated by the Taliban leadership to carry out external relations.

The U.S., your country, Iran and China, at some point, started talking to the Taliban. Do you think India missed a trick by not engaging with the Taliban?

I believe that New Delhi’s policy of avoiding any engagement with the Taliban has had its day, especially in view of the upcoming launch of intra-Afghan talks and eventual transformation of the Taliban movement into an influential legal political force in Afghanistan.

The Taliban is sending feelers that they want to open a channel of communication with India, and even signalled that they are willing to accept Kashmir as India’s internal affair. Is this a strategic decision or a tactical manoeuvre?

I believe that all these facts fall within the policy of good neighbourhood relations proclaimed by the Taliban. I doubt that it is a tactical manoeuver; rather, it is a strategic vision.

In this regard, I would like to note that the Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, clearly indicated in his message on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr the Taliban’s willingness to strengthen constructive relations with all regional countries.”

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