Taliban's overture to India; Stanekzai who met Indian envoy in Doha trained with Indian Army

The Taliban representative who met Ambassador Deepak Mittal, India's envoy in Qatar with wide experience of the region, on Tuesday in Doha, trained under the Indian Army at its elite institutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s

Sep 01, 2021
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Ambassador Deepak Mittal and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai

The Taliban representative who met Ambassador Deepak Mittal, India's envoy in Qatar with wide experience of the region, on Tuesday in Doha, trained under the Indian Army at its elite institutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the seven persons who call the shots in the Islamist militant group that recently took over power in Afghanistan, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai is a key diplomat of the insurgent group and there is speculation that he could be the new foreign minister of the country. This is the first time India has admitted to having made diplomatic contact with the Taliban, even though there have been some indirect diplomatic and intelligence-level contacts previously and comes in the wake of the Taliban's public overture to New Delhi earlier in the week.  

Ambassador Mittal met Stanikzai, who is head of the Taliban's Political Office in Qatar, according to a press release from the Ministry of External Affairs. They met at the Indian Embassy in Doha, the statement said. Stanekzai trained with the Indian Army between 1979 and 1982 -- three years in the Army Cadet College, Nowgaon, as a soldier and then as an officer at Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. He is a rare Taliban leader who is in the English language and is well travelled, especially during his stint as Afghanistan's Deputy Foreign Minister when the Taliban fighters last controlled that country, NDTV said. 
 
In 1996, he visited Washington DC on a failed mission to convince President Bill Clinton's administration to acknowledge the Taliban government, according to a Bloomberg report. He also led delegations to China, it said. Stanekzai was also Abdul Hakim Haqqani's deputy negotiator in the talks that were held with officials of the earlier Afghanistan government.
 
 Announcing the meeting, the Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement Tuesday evening, said: “Today, Ambassador of India to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the Head of Taliban’s Political Office in Doha. The meeting took place at the Embassy of India, Doha, on the request of the Taliban side.”

“Discussions focused on safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan. The travel of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit India also came up,” it said.

“Ambassador Mittal raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner. The Taliban representative assured the Ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed,” the MEA said.

Mittal was head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran (PAI) desk in the MEA before he handed charge to J P Singh in 2020. India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Rudrendra Tandon, headed the PAI desk before Mittal. Singh, Tandon and Mittal have been playing key roles in shaping India’s response to the situation in Afghanistan. Mittal accompanied Singh to several meetings in Doha where they had recently met Afghanistan government leader and head of High Council for National reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah before Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, NDTV said. 

 The meeting between Mittal and Stanekzai, the first time any contact has been made public, took place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, noting the evolving situation in Afghanistan, directed that a high-level group comprising External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and senior officials focus on India’s immediate priorities. This group, which has been meeting regularly over the last few days, is “seized of issues pertaining to the safe return of stranded Indians, the travel of Afghan nationals (especially minorities) to India, and assuring that the territory of Afghanistan is not used in any manner for terrorism directed against India”.

The meeting in Doha followed Stanekzai’s statements over the weekend. He said India is “very important for this subcontinent” and his group wants to continue Afghanistan’s “cultural”, “economic”, “political” and “trade ties” with India “like in the past”. He made these remarks in a carefully scripted statement that he read in Pashto in a 46-minute video message broadcast Saturday on Taliban social media platforms and Afghanistan’s Milli TV.

Given that Pakistan holds the levers to the Taliban, and has always described India’s ties with Afghanistan as a “negative” influence, the carefully deliberated Taliban statement holds a lot of significance for the region and the group's foreign policy orientation, The Indian Express said. It is also the first categorical statement directed at India by a senior leader of the Taliban since they captured Kabul on August 15.

Last Sunday, The Indian Express reported that the UN Security Council, with India as its president for the month of August, dropped a reference to the Taliban from a paragraph in its statement asking Afghan groups not to support terrorists “operating on the territory of any other country”.

Stanekzai had made similar overtures in 1996, after the Taliban’s first takeover of Kabul, when he was Deputy Foreign Minister of a caretaker regime. But at that time, India had not met them or responded and the Taliban faced international isolation.

This time, his statements came after India evacuated its entire Indian diplomatic contingent from the embassy in Kabul.

Over the last two weeks, Taliban spokespersons Suhail Shaheen and Zabiullah Mujahid have also spoken on relations with India and had asked New Delhi not to shut down its embassy in Kabul.

A wary Delhi will, however, wait and watch for demonstrable behaviour on the ground in Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s treatment of Afghans who have worked with India. Officials have pointed out that the Taliban did cooperate during the arrangement of a safe passage for the evacuation of Indian diplomats and nationals and Afghans from Kabul.