Senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai
A quick assessment done by the Indian side and its Afghan counterparts came to the conclusion that the request from the Taliban side could not be taken at face value and that the evacuation of the Indian diplomats and others should go ahead as planned
As it became apparent earlier this week that New Delhi planned to bring back its officials from Kabul, senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai reached out to the Indian side with a surprise request: Would India retain its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan?
The request was conveyed informally and indirectly by the Taliban leader, who is part of the leadership of the group’s political office at Doha in Qatar, shortly before India evacuated some 200 people – including its envoy, diplomats, security personnel, and citizens–in two military flights on Monday and Tuesday.
Stanekzai, who is seen as the number two in the Taliban’s negotiating team and third overall among leaders based in Qatar, has been critical of India’s role in Afghanistan in the past, and the message took Indian officials in New Delhi and Kabul by surprise, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
He conveyed to the Indian side in his informal message that the group was aware of Indian concerns regarding the security situation in Kabul following the Taliban takeover on Sunday, but that it should not worry about the safety of its mission and diplomats in the Afghan capital, the people said.
More specifically, Stanekzai referred to reports that fighters from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) were in Kabul and deployed at check posts set up by the Taliban on the route to the airport, and contended that all check posts, including those at the airport, were firmly in the hands of the Taliban, the people added.
A quick assessment done by the Indian side and its Afghan counterparts came to the conclusion that the request from the Taliban side could not be taken at face value and that the evacuation of the Indian diplomats and others should go ahead as planned, people said.
As reported by Hindustan Times on Tuesday, the evacuation was done after the Indian side received intelligence reports that certain “rogue elements” and members of LeT and Haqqani Network, both Pakistan-based terror groups, had entered Kabul with Taliban fighters who took over the capital following the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government.
People familiar with developments said once these reports were received, no chances could be taken with the safety of diplomats and other officials in Kabul as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given instructions that the security and return of the Indians were of paramount importance.
The development also reflects the Taliban’s apparent efforts to reach out to the international community amid growing concerns about the group’s actions affecting security and human rights in Afghanistan, and the Indian side’s misgivings about the Taliban despite opening channels of communication with the group in recent months.
There was no immediate response from Indian officials to the development.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has said on Twitter that the group would not create a hindrance in the functioning of embassies and consulates. “We assure all diplomats, embassies, consulates, and charitable workers, whether they are international or national that not only no problem will be created for them on the part of IEA but a secure environment will be provided to them, Inshallah,” he tweeted on August 16.
Hindustan Times was the first to report on June 8 about India opening channels of communication with Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, against the backdrop of the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan.
Besides exchanging messages with Baradar, the Indian side has also been in touch with Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mullah Mohammed Fazil, the people said. Both Khairkhwa and Fazil were held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after their capture following the collapse of the previous Taliban regime in 2001.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as the Taliban’s ambassador in Pakistan, had also informally advised the Indian side in Kabul regarding contacts with the Taliban, the people added.
Stanekzai, who trained for about 18 months at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun during 1982-83, when he was an officer in the Afghan Army, has emerged as a top Taliban negotiator in recent years. He subsequently left the army to join Pakistan-based mujahideen who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
He created a flutter last year by accusing India of playing a “negative role” in Afghanistan for the past 40 years. If the Indian government reconsiders its policy and wants an active role in peace, reconciliation and reconstruction, the Taliban would welcome it and look at it positively, he had said.
At the time, the Afghan foreign ministry had rejected Stanekzai’s remarks and said India had been cooperating in development and was expected to contribute to the Afghan peace process.