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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

India, Taliban make first official contact after last US troops leave Afghanistan

Indian envoy to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met Taliban leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai at the Indian Embassy in Doha.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: September 1, 2021 8:29:57 am
Taliban forces stand guard at the airport in Kabul on Tuesday; (left) Major General Chris Donahue, the last US service member to leave Kabul airport on Monday night. (Reuters)

Hours after the last US military aircraft flew out of Kabul to mark the end of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, India made its first official contact with the Taliban when its ambassador to Qatar met the head of the Taliban political office in Doha Tuesday.

Announcing the meeting, the Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement, 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 Joint Secretary (Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran) in the MEA before he handed charge to J P Singh in 2020. India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Rudrendra Tandon, was also JS (PAI) 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 leader Abdullah Abdullah before Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15.

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, NSA Ajit Doval and senior officials focus on India’s immediate priorities.

Sources said 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 group has also been monitoring the ground situation in Afghanistan and international reactions, including the resolution passed early Tuesday by the UN Security Council.

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 which 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, this is significant. 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.

South Block, which is tracking these statements carefully, saw this as the Taliban’s first outreach to India since the group captured power. 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.

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