The Indian government has opted to maintain a studied silence as Taliban leaders and spokespersons have offered widely divergent views on issues such as Kashmir that have traditionally been red flags to the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi.
Against the backdrop of a discreet outreach towards India by senior Taliban leaders ahead of the formation of a new dispensation in Kabul, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen caused consternation by telling BBC in an interview on Thursday that the Taliban intended to raise its voice for Muslims in Kashmir and India.
Shaheen’s remarks ran counter to an assertion earlier this week by senior Taliban negotiator Anas Haqqani, also a senior leader of the terrorist group Haqqani Network, that the Taliban has a policy of not interfering in the internal matters of other countries, such as Kashmir, and looked forward to “positive” relations with India.
In a lengthy video statement issued a week ago, senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, who is tipped for a senior position in the new set-up in Kabul, said the group wants to continue Afghanistan’s political, economic and cultural ties with India. In remarks that were generally perceived as conciliatory, Stanekzai described India as a “very important” player in the subcontinent and avoided any mention of touchy issues such as Kashmir.
Stanekzai also met India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, at the Indian embassy in Doha on Tuesday, the first officially acknowledged contact between the two sides.
The external affairs ministry has said the meeting was held “on the request of the Taliban side” and that Stanekzai had assured Mittal that issues raised by the Indian side – including the safe return of Indians still in Afghanistan and Afghan soil being used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism – would be “positively addressed”.
As reported by Hindustan Times, Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani are apparently spearheading the outreach towards India. Both have spoken to an Indian news channel, though it is rare for senior Taliban leaders to give interviews to the Indian media.
While most of their comments have been measured and nuanced, the latest remarks by Shaheen have not been viewed positively in some quarters in New Delhi.
In his interview with BBC, Shaheen said the Taliban don’t have a policy of launching armed operations against any country but added: “As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.”
Shaheen’s other remarks, related to the Haqqani Network and the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar by five Pakistani terrorists, are also red flags for India’s security and foreign policy establishment, especially those sections which harbour deep-seated suspicions about the group and its long-standing relations with Pakistan.
Indian, American and Afghan officials have blamed the Haqqani Network for carrying out a suicide car bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008. The attack killed nearly 60 people, including the Indian defence attaché and a diplomat. Shaheen contended allegations against the Haqqani Network are claims. “The Haqqanis are not a group. They are part of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They are the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said.
He also denied the Taliban had a role in the hijacking of IC-814 and the Indian government should be “thankful” to the group for the help it extended during the hijacking. “India had requested us [to allow the plane to land in Kandahar] because the jet had insufficient fuel and then we helped in the release of the hostages,” he said.
Analysts in New Delhi have noted that the Taliban has so far not publicly acknowledged the meeting between Stanekzai and the Indian ambassador in Doha, especially at a time when Taliban spokesmen have been issuing statements or tweeting about meetings between Stanekzai and envoys of countries such as Pakistan, the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Canada and France.
The external affairs ministry has so far declined to comment on the Taliban’s lack of acknowledgement of the meeting in Doha and said it is too early to say anything on the possible recognition of a Taliban set-up in Kabul.
Some of the reticence to speak publicly on such matters can be attributed to New Delhi’s focus on the safe repatriation of Indians still in Afghanistan, currently believed to number a few dozen though the government has declined to give specific figures.
India, which has maintained channels of communication with some Taliban leaders since last year, has insisted that its main concern on Afghanistan as of now is the use of Afghan soil for terrorism or any anti-India activities. While setting aside questions about recognising a Taliban government at a news briefing on Thursday, external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “Let’s just treat the Doha meeting for what it is – it is just a meeting and I think these are still very early days.”