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India on Thursday said it was in touch with various stakeholders in Afghan peace process in response to questions whether New Delhi had reached out to the hardline Sunni rebel Taliban group which has been fighting the internationally recognized Ashraf Ghani government.

When asked about news reports that New Delhi had established contact with the Taliban, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said that India’s ties with Afghanistan were historical and New Delhi had been engaging “Afghans across ethnicities." The Taliban belong to the dominant Pashtun group which accounts for about 50% of the country’s population. The reference to “Afghans across ethnicities" could refer to India being in touch with Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara origin leaders within Afghanistan like Rashid Dostum and others. Some of these leaders have visited India in the past.

“As a friendly neighbour, we are concerned about peace and security in Afghanistan and the region. We support all peace initiatives and have been engaged with several stakeholders including regional countries," Bagchi said without stating clearly whether the stakeholders New Delhi had with included the Taliban.

“As you are aware, EAM (External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar) participated in the inaugural ceremony of the intra Afghan talks held in Doha last year," Bagchi said referring to Jaishankar virtually participating in the meet that heralded the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last year.

“A senior official delegation attended the talks in Doha. In the recent past, we have had visits by multiple Afghan leaders to India and we have also had official visits to Kabul. We are in touch with various stakeholders, as I said, in pursuance of our long term commitment towards development and reconstruction of Afghanistan," Bagchi said.

Some analysts say the use of the word “stake holders" gives it an air of ambiguity which could include the Taliban. Other analysts however say that given that Pakistan is the main backer of the Taliban and that Islamabad has tried to ensure that a Taliban takeover in Kabul to keep Indian influence to a minimum, it is unlikely that New Delhi would have had contacts with Taliban leaders who matter in Afghanistan. Still, given that the group will be part of a future power structure in Kabul, New Delhi may be looking to reach out to the group.

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