Senior Taliban Leader Wants India's Diplomatic Presence in Afghanistan

20 Aug, 2021 12:01 IST|Sakshi Post

Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, a top Taliban leader, reached out to the Indian side last week when it became clear that New Delhi planned to pull back its officials from Kabul. The request was made informally by a Taliban leader who is part of the group's political office in Doha, Qatar, soon before India evacuated 200 people in two military flights on Monday and Tuesday, including its envoy, diplomats, security officers, and citizens.

Stanekzai, the Taliban's number two negotiator and third overall among leaders stationed in Qatar, has previously been critical of India's role in Afghanistan, and the message caught Indian authorities in New Delhi and Kabul off guard, according to people familiar with the situation.

In an informal communication to the Indian side, he said the organisation was aware of Indian concerns about the security situation in Kabul following the Taliban takeover on Sunday, but that it should not be concerned about the safety of its mission and diplomats in the Afghan capital, according to the people.

Stanekzai specifically mentioned reports that fighters from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) were in Kabul and stationed at check points set up by the Taliban on the way to the airport, and claimed that all check points, including those at the airport, were firmly in the Taliban's hands,  the people said.

According to the people, a fast assessment by the Indian side and its Afghan counterparts concluded that the Taliban's proposal could not be taken at face value and that the evacuation of Indian ambassadors and others should go as scheduled.

The evacuation was carried out after the Indian side received intelligence reports that certain "rogue elements" and members of the Pakistan-based terror groups LeT and Haqqani Network had entered Kabul with Taliban fighters who took over the capital following the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government on Sunday. According to sources familiar with the situation, after these information were received, no chances could be taken with the safety of ambassadors and other officials in Kabul, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given orders that the protection and repatriation of Indians be prioritised.

The development also reflects the Taliban's apparent efforts to reach out to the international community in the midst of growing concerns about the group's actions affecting security and human rights in Afghanistan, as well as the Indian side's misgivings about the Taliban despite recent opening channels of communication with the group.

The incident elicited no quick comment from Indian officials.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, stated on Twitter that the group will not interfere with the operations of embassies and consulates. "We promise all diplomats, embassies, consulates, and charitable workers, whether international or national, that not only will no trouble be caused for them by the IEA, but that they will be provided with a secure atmosphere, Inshallah," he tweeted on August 16.

On June 8, the Hindustan Times was the first to disclose that India was creating channels of communication with Taliban factions and commanders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the context of the withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan.

According to the sources, the Indian side has been in contact with Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mullah Mohammed Fazil in addition to exchanging communications with Baradar. Khairkhwa and Fazil were both incarcerated at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after their capture in 2001, following the collapse of the former Taliban rule.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's envoy in Pakistan, had also unofficially advised the Indian side in Kabul about connections with the Taliban, according to the sources.

Stanekzai, who trained for around 18 months as an officer in the Afghan Army at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun in 1982-83, has emerged as a major Taliban negotiator in recent years. He later quit the army to join the Pakistan-based mujahideen, who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

He sparked outrage last year when he accused India of playing a "negative role" in Afghanistan for the previous 40 years. If the Indian government reconsiders its stance and wants to play an active part in peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction, the Taliban will welcome it and view it favourably, he said.

The Afghan foreign ministry had dismissed Stanekzai's views at the time, stating that India had been collaborating in development and was expected to assist to the Afghan peace process.

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