In signs that the Government of India has softened its stance on the Taliban, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced that its Ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal met with the head of the Taliban’s political office, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, on Tuesday.
While Indian security officials and diplomats are understood to have engaged with Taliban representatives for several months, this is the first time the government has publicly acknowledged such a meeting which, the MEA said, came at the request of the Taliban. Officials told The Hindu that the request came as Taliban leaders have been keen to receive some “acceptability”, and that India remains “cautious” about its approach to the group.
“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 to India also came up,” a statement issued by the MEA said, adding that Mr. Mittal said India’s concern was that “Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner.”
About 140 Indians and members of the Sikh minority still remain in Kabul, and need to be brought back. India has thus far transported 565 people, including 112 Afghan nationals to Delhi. The numbers have been far lower than other countries like the U.S., which has evacuated 1,22,000 people, including more than 1,00,000 Afghan nationals, in some measure due to the fact that the government has security concerns and is strictly regulating any visas, and in some measure as it is unable to ensure the safe evacuation of people wishing to travel.
According to the MEA statement, the Taliban leader assured the Indian Ambassador that all the issues would be “positively addressed”. Mr. Stanekzai, who trained and graduated out of the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun, made a statement on Saturday calling for India to continue its political and trade ties with Afghanistan, and pursue connectivity projects.
The Haqqani group
The meeting and the statements came after a number of signals from New Delhi that it was recalibrating its earlier position on the Taliban as a terrorist group, after Taliban militants took control of the country on August 15. In particular, India has had concerns about the Haqqani group, which is a part of the Taliban and Taliban Deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, who were responsible for the attacks on the Indian Embassy in 2008-2009. The attacks left more than 75 people, including Indian diplomats, dead. It is also believed that the Taliban is a proxy of Pakistan.
In the last few months, however, the MEA had said it was in touch with “various stakeholders” in Afghanistan, not denying that the Taliban was one of them, and Indian officials have met with Taliban representatives in Doha, according to sources. In June, one such meeting was confirmed by Qatari special envoy for reconciliation Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, when India decided to pull out all embassy staff, they were stopped from leaving for the airport by gunmen guarding the city, and the government had to open its channels to the Taliban to secure their release.
Money changed hands
According to sources, the Embassy in Kabul worked its communications to the Taliban through other countries and leaders like former President Hamid Karzai and High Council for National Reconciliation Chief Abdullah Abdullah, and eventually received permission after some money changed hands, and assurances given that the convoy would travel unarmed so as to reach the airport with Taliban escort.
As a result, while officials say some form of tactical engagement is necessary, it remains to be seen whether the Modi government will agree to re-establish its diplomatic presence in the country and to recognise a Taliban government, once it is formed.
While countries like Russia, China, Qatar, Iran and Pakistan have kept their embassies in Kabul open, others like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and European countries have closed their missions there. Speaking to Members of Parliament at a briefing last Friday, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said India would “wait and watch” the Taliban’s actions, especially with regard to human rights, treatment of women and minorities, and attitude towards terror groups that could target India using the Afghan territory.