New Delhi: In a major breakthrough marking the first official contact between the Taliban and the Indian government in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a top Taliban representative on Tuesday assured India that it would not allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorists against it. After the Taliban reached out and sought a meeting, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, met India’s ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal at the Indian embassy in Doha. The ambassador, besides the concerns over terrorism, also raised the issue of the “safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan”, as well as the “travel of Afghan nationals”, especially Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, who wish to travel to India. The senior Taliban leader assured him that India’s concerns would be “positively addressed”, New Delhi said in a statement.
Incidentally, the Taliban leader had undergone training in his youth at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in the early 1980s when he was an Afghan Army officer, and so he probably knows and understands India much better than most of his colleagues. While India is believed to have held informal meetings with Taliban leaders in the past few months in Doha, this is the first formal meeting between the two sides that has been announced by New Delhi. The role of Qatar in all this is also being closely watched. The establishment of communication channels raises questions on whether India could recognise the Taliban government at a later stage if Indian sensitivities are respected.
According to reports, Mr Stanekzai, a leader from the dominant Pashtun community of Afghanistan, had released a statement last week that the Taliban wanted good relations with India, which provided humanitarian and development assistance of over $3 billion to Afghanistan in the past two decades, under which more than 500 infrastructure/development projects were undertaken. India has also been concerned about Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed trying to use Afghanistan now as a training ground to launch terror attacks against India, as well as the prospect of Afghan militants directly infiltrating through the Line of Control, which had happened in the early and mid-1990s. There has therefore been a school of thought that India should — in order to protect its interests — try its best to engage the Taliban proactively now that it holds sway throughout Afghanistan.
In a statement, the external affairs ministry said on Tuesday: “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… Ambassador Mittal raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-India activities and terrorism in any manner.”
The MEA added: “Discussions focused on the 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… The Taliban representative assured the ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed.”
The Taliban — which had a horrific record of governance from 1996 to 2001 — seems intent on convincing the world that it has turned a new leaf. Its interaction with New Delhi at a time when India was always seen as a strong backer of the erstwhile Ashraf Ghani-led government is also seen as extremely significant. This could rankle Pakistan and possibly indicates that not all of the Taliban’s top leadership share the same views on India.
Foreign policy watchers are pointing increasingly to the powerful role played by tiny Gulf nation of Qatar on mediation between the Taliban and world powers. After all, it was Qatar which began hosting the talks between the Taliban and the United States last year. Qatar’s strong influence over the Taliban leadership could also prove to be another worry for Pakistan, which has been the traditional backer of the militant group which has now captured power in the strife-torn nation.
It may also be recalled that external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had on August 20 stopped over in Qatar on his way back from the United States and had held talks with Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, with whom he had discussed the situation in Afghanistan. With India no longer having a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, New Delhi seems to be relying on nations like Qatar to have some relevance in the strife-torn nation after the Taliban takeover.