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Delhi rolls Kabul dice

- Talks with ‘Butcher’ signal shift

Hekmatyar in Kabul on May 4. (AFP)

New Delhi, May 19: India has opened talks with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a long-time enemy of New Delhi and a close ally of Pakistan, marking a dramatic break in its policy towards Kabul amid hectic jostling over the future of that country.

India's ambassador in Kabul Manpreet Vohra met the 69-year old Hekmatyar on Thursday, two weeks after the man once dubbed the "butcher of Kabul" returned to the Afghan capital under a deal with President Ashraf Ghani.

Hekmatyar, the go-to man for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence during the CIA-backed mujahideen war against the Soviet Union, shares three decades of hostility with India.

Ghani's deal with Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami has widely been interpreted as an act of desperation aimed at countering the Taliban's expanding territorial control over Afghanistan following a series of military successes for the militia.

But the return to Kabul of Hekmatyar, who was believed to have hidden in Pakistan for most of the past two decades, is also expected to strengthen Islamabad's influence against Ghani, whose government has publicly criticised ISI support to groups like the Taliban.

Since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, India has tried to focus on consolidating elected governments in Kabul, in which New Delhi has viewed - and continues to see - its best interests, as also those of Afghanistan. It has steered clear of any signalling that could strengthen alternative power centres in Kabul. Officially, that remains India's position.

But India is increasingly concerned over the stability of the Ghani government. Senior officials told The Telegraph that the meeting with Hekmatyar was aimed at building a channel of communication it may need in the future. The foreign office was silent on the conversation between Vohra and Hekmatyar - but the embassy in Kabul today released images of the meeting, suggesting a readiness to telegraph its jockeying.

"Gulbuddin Hekmatyar thanked India's assistance for the development of Afghanistan," the embassy said in a post on Twitter with the images. "He praised India for large infrastructure projects like Salma Dam."

Hekmatyar's deal and return to Kabul coincide with instability and infighting within the National Unity Government of Afghanistan, between Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Despite losing a chunk of its senior leadership, the Taliban today holds more territory than it did at the peak of its resistance to US-led forces under Ghani's predecessor Hamid Karzai.

In Afghanistan's Khorasan province, the Islamic State too has made significant gains, worrying both the US and Russia. Moscow has even deepened ties with the Taliban - a militia whose leaders were at the forefront of the mujahideen that drove it out of Afghanistan - to contain the expansion of the IS, upsetting India.

Russia has contended that while the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, retains its desire to control Afghanistan, it has never has expansionist ambitions beyond the country, unlike the IS.

For India, negotiating with Hekmatyar is not very different from Russia talking with the Taliban.

Through the late 1980s, Hekmatyar was the ISI's warlord of choice in Afghanistan.


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