Stanekzai’s social media plea and the Blinken-Jaishankar conversation indicate India’s re-entry into Afghanistan
Those who wrote off India and gave Pakistan the thumbs up after the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15 may have to eat their words now.
While the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar discussed cooperation in Afghanistan over the phone, a top Taliban leader, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, has said that the Taliban wants to continue Afghanistan’s political, economic and cultural ties with India.
In a video posted on the Taliban’s social media platforms on Saturday, Stanekzai said: “India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past. Trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us. With India, trade through air corridors will also remain open. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard.” He also referred to the Chabahar port in Iran, which is developed by India.
Hindustan Times reported that, earlier, Stanekzai had informally reached out to the Indian side after the Taliban took over and made a surprise request to New Delhi to retain its embassy personnel in Kabul. He had also denied that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) were in Kabul and deployed at check posts on routes to the airport. All check posts, including those at the airport, were firmly in the hands of the Taliban, he asserted.
However, the Indian side felt that Stanekzai’s message could not be taken at face value and pulled out nearly 200 personnel including the Ambassador, from Kabul.
Stanekzai, who is seen as the number two in the Taliban’s negotiating team and third overall among leaders based in Qatar, trained for several years at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun in the early 1980s.
Significantly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Indian External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar on Saturday about coordination in tackling the growing crisis in Afghanistan.
Blinken tweeted: “Spoke with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar today to discuss our shared priorities including continued coordination on Afghanistan and in the United Nations. Look forward to continuing to deepen our partnership.”
And Jaishankar tweeted: “Spoke to US Secretary of State Blinken. Continued our discussions on Afghanistan. Also exchanged views on the agenda of UNSC.”
The Hindu quoted US State Department spokesman Ned Price as saying that Blinken and Jaishankar agreed to remain “closely coordinated on shared goals and priorities to deepen the US-India partnership.”
Like the US, India is deeply worried about the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP) and the Taliban’s tolerance of it, despite a background of animosity between them. Taliban’s stony silence on the Kabul bombing and its failure to condemn the ISIS-KP which owned the attack, indicate an underlying nexus.
The Taliban’s current policy is to make peace with all Afghan groups, including the ISIA-KP. Khallilur Haqqani of the Haqqani Network (which is now an ally of the Taliban) had made this clear in his interview to Pakistan’s Geo TV on August 24.
India’s Stakes in Afghanistan
Though India was marginalized during the peace process and the Doha talks (while Pakistan was involved) New Delhi has deep stakes in Afghanistan. During the two decades of non-Taliban rule, India had pumped in US$ 3 billion in developmental aid. Further, if Pakistan-sponsored terrorist activities in India were to be stopped or curtailed, the Taliban and other terror groups in Afghanistan, which were in cahoots with Pakistan, had to be kept in check. New Delhi is still to overcome apprehensions about this.
The Hindu quotes the National Investigative Agency (NIA) to say that ISIS-KP comprises cadres of the Pakistan-based outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The NIA had busted an Indian module which was in contact with some ISIS-KP operatives through an Instagram channel named ‘Chronicle Foundation’.
Egged on by Pakistan-based recruiters, some members had attempted to join the outfit in Afghanistan via Iran in April 2019. The NIA had conducted searches in Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka and Kerala and arrested ten members of the module headed by one Mohammed Ameen from Malappuram in Kerala.
When ISIS-KP was founded in 2015 in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan, more than 24 Indians had joined it. The Hindu quotes counter-terrorism experts to say that the ISIS-KP is but a “smokescreen to conceal the role of elements within Pakistan in raising a group for targeted strikes in Afghanistan while ensuring deniability.”
A counter-terrorism expert pointed out that the ISIS-KP’s former chief, Aslam Farooqi alias Abdullah Orokzai, is a Pakistani citizen. He was captured by Afghan forces in April 2020 in connection with the Kabul Gurudwara attack which took place on March 25, 2020. He confessed to his links with the LeT. The ISIS-KP had claimed responsibility for the attack which was carried out allegedly by an Indian-led module. The leader had been identified as Mohammed Muhasin from Kerala. Muhasin was killed in the shootout with the Afghan forces.
Again in March, another key ISKP commander named Munib Mohammed confessed on capture that he was a Pakistani having links with the Lashkar e Toiba and the Haqqani Network.
US Cool To Pak NSA
Although the US used Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to talk to it and Pakistan was part of the Doha US-Taliban talks, Washington had deep suspicions about the toxic nexus between Pakistan and Taliban and the double role Pakistan had been playing in Afghanistan since 2001.
When Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Dr. Moeed Yusuf, and the ISIS Director General, Lt.Gen. Faiz Hameed, visited Washington in July 2021, US officials had taken a tough stance on Pakistan’s nexus with terrorists in Afghanistan. President Biden had also sent a subtle message to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan by not talking to him after coming to power. On his part, Prime Minister Imran openly complained that the US had abandoned Pakistan in favor of India.
In an effort to get a safe exit passage for its troops, citizens and affiliates, the US entered into a detente with the Taliban which had taken over Kabul on August 15. But the attack on the airport by the ISIS-KP and the Taliban’s unwillingness to take action against the perpetrators, reversed the trend. The US has not carried out a retaliatory strike and killed two ISIS-KP masterminds in Nangarhar Province and another against suspected suicide bombers in Kabul.
It cannot be assumed that China will stand with Pakistan on the Afghan issue, through and through. China’s relationship with the Taliban is not “brotherly” as Pakistan’s is. China’s interest in Afghanistan is basically economic as seen from the perspective of its flagship international project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is also eyeing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
China needs Taliban’s help to maintain peace in Afghanistan to pursue its economic objectives. It would need the Taliban’s help also to contain the separatist East Turkistan Movement in Xinjiang. But if the Taliban does not oblige on these counts, China could abandon Taliban and watch, from the sidelines, the US trying to cripple the Taliban regime with economic sanctions and military actions.
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P. K. Balachandran
- K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.