India watches keenly as Taliban-Pakistan ties remain in focus

There is latent discomfort between them over the Durand Line that divides the Pashtun dominated region spread over Afghanistan and Pakistan

September 02, 2021 10:30 pm | Updated 10:30 pm IST - New Delhi

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaking to Badri 313 military unit at Kabul's airport, Afghanistan

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaking to Badri 313 military unit at Kabul's airport, Afghanistan

India is closely watching the Taliban’s stance towards Pakistan as it appears imminent that the outfit will form the next government based in Kabul or Kandahar in the next few days. The concern in this regard is shaped by the fact that Sher Mohammed Stanekzai, head of the Taliban’s Political Office in Doha, met India’s envoy to Qatar , giving the first sign that channels of communication between the two sides are now open.

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Soon after the India-Taliban meeting in Doha, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed asserted the special bond between Pakistan and Taliban, saying in a TV debate, “We are the custodians of Taliban leaders. We have taken care of them for a long time. They have got shelter, education and a home in Pakistan. We have done everything for them.” Such repeated comments from Pakistan can increase India’s discomfort, especially after the meeting in Doha.

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The comment from the Pakistani Minister, however, is not reflected in the Taliban’s recent statements regarding Pakistan. Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has spoken on four occasions about issues that matter to Pakistan. At an initial press conference, Mr. Mujahid refused to extend the general amnesty to former Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. General Musharraf had ended Pakistan’s open support for the Taliban just before a military coalition led by the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. The Taliban responded by launching multiple attacks on General Musharraf that failed to succeed. Mr. Mujahid refused to follow the Pakistani position on the contested Durand Line, which is a sensitive issue for the Pashtun community that resides in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We are still in the process of forming a government, but the Durand Line is an important matter for our nation and it will be what the nation wants,” he said.

When asked by a reporter on the Kashmir issue, he followed the line laid by Mr. Stanekzai, and said, “Kashmir is an issue between India and Pakistan. We have nothing to do with issues that are internal to our neighbours.” Mr. Stanekzai had described India-Pakistan tension as “political and geographical”, and urged both countries to not use Afghan territory to deal with that dispute. The Taliban’s comments asserting an autonomous line is creating mixed opinions as it is well known that Pakistan’s establishment has unparalleled leverage over the organisation which has operated out of Quetta for the last two decades at least.

Veteran observers here say that the Taliban and Pakistan are both aware that the former’s military success against the government of President Ashraf Ghani may influence the restive Pashtun population in Pakistani territory. Veteran diplomat Rajiv Dogra observed that the Taliban has adopted “sophisticated messaging” for independently reaching out to major countries. “This outreach to the world is new,” said Mr. Dogra, explaining the Taliban’s attempts to project itself as a free player. He also pointed at the latent discomfort between the Taliban and Pakistan over the Durand Line that divides the Pashtun dominated region spread over Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban are ethnic Pashtun and the Durand Line is an anathema to them, which explains Mr. Mujahid resorting to the Pashtun “nation” while explaining the Taliban’s position on the Durand Line. It is understood that Pakistan will watch over its own Pashtun population for any possible fallout from the success of militant Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan. “Pakistan has mistreated its own Pashtun population over the last few years,” said Mr. Dogra, referring to the Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) movement in Pakistan, which remains a challenge for Islamabad.

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