Kabul reaches out to rebels in Pak
Kabul reaches out to rebels in Pak

Afghanistan's last-ditch attempt on Wednesday to reach out to the Taliban and its patrons in Pakistan is a watershed moment. Among its potential consequences could be a huge boost to India's energy supplies.

In a landmark speech, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani opened the door to even revising Afghanistan's Constitution if the Taliban renounces violence. His speech came at the start of a conference in Kabul, where representatives of 25 countries, including India and Pakistan, are in attendance. The road map has been drawn up after consultations with those countries.

Pakistan's response — in deeds rather than words — will be crucial to determining whether this initiative will lead South Asia towards greater stability and cooperation or more fissures and violence. The Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan have allowed them to outlast all efforts against them since the US-led war on Afghanistan started at the end of 2001.

Economic priorities
The pipeline to bring gas from Central Asia to India would be the first project to benefit if the Taliban responds positively to the ground-breaking offer, Afghan Ambassador to India, Dr Shaida Abdali, said in an exclusive interview, a couple of hours after Ghani's speech ended in Kabul. 

Work on the Afghan leg of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline begun last week. The 1,800-kilometre pipeline could potentially bring 33 billion cubic feet of gas to the energy-starved subcontinent for a period of over 30 years.

Last-ditch initiative
Asked if Ghani's speech was a "last-ditch attempt", Abdali nodded, but preferred to call it a "never-before offer" and a "golden opportunity".

Recent terrorist attacks in Kabul have signaled that the Taliban may not be positively inclined to respond. In fact, many observers see the government and its backers in the US and other countries as running out of options. US president Donald Trump had announced a roadmap for Afghanistan last year, in which he named India as a key partner.

Indicating that the Taliban's strength hinged on Pakistan's support, Abdali said, "We hope our neighbours, particularly Pakistan, will respond."

Calling Taliban's attacks an "engineered way of declaring a war against its neighbours", Abdali said even Pakistan acknowledges that they come from there. Speaking of a "lack of sincerity," Abdali said, "We want an end to their sanctuaries. If Pakistan thinks it can block the region from integration, it should already know by now (that blocking) is not a viable option. 

We have already moved beyond." He spoke glowingly of the recent progress on the Chabahar port in Iran, the very successful visit of Iran's President, and the fact that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also supported the Chabahar project. Chabahar is close to Pakistan's Gwadar port but is located on the Iranian coast. It is the alternative route through which trade and possibly oil supply could be routed between Central Asia and India.

Unparalleled bond with India
Referring to what he called India's "unmatched support" since 2001, Abdali spoke of New Delhi as a "special friend," one that "will go for the long haul". India has invested heavily in building roads and hospitals in Afghanistan during this period, and has earned immense goodwill among Afghans in various parts of the country.

India is a part of what is called the 'Kabul Process', through which the proposals announced on Wednesday were forged. This is the second conference in the 'Kabul Process.'

Following intense consultations which followed the initial conference, Ghani has offered a mutual ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, and the possibility of constitutional reform. Abdali confirmed that his government was open to calling a Loya Jirga (grand council) of representatives from across the country, like the one that drafted the current Constitution.

Afghanistan is due to have elections for a new Parliament later this year, and for a new 
president next year. Abdali said that those elections would go forward, although the presidential elections could be delayed a little, depending on the response to the latest initiative. 

By: David Devadas