India silent on Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Stanekzai’s overture

Outreach comes ahead of crucial UNSC sessions on terror and Afghanistan

South Block has maintained a studied silence in response to the comments from Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Stanekzai who on Saturday described India as “very important for the region”.

Mr. Stanekzai’s comments were the first overt signal from the Taliban that it wishes to engage India which is currently the president of the UN Security Council and is set to preside over global deliberations on the current chaotic situation in Afghanistan.

“India is very important for the region and we want trade and economic relations with it. We expect the relationship will continue like before,” said Mr. Stanekzai in a video message. Mr Stanekzai has served as the leader of the political team of the Taliban that negotiated the Doha pact with the U.S., paving the way for the withdrawal of the United States.

The overture from the Taliban for ties “like before” has come after months of speculation about India’s overt and covert diplomacy with various stakeholders about the Taliban. Mr. Stanekzai’s video statement has shown that some progress has been made in repairing India’s ties with the Taliban which have been weighed down by India’s misgivings about the outfit following the hijacking of IC814 in December 1999 which led to the release of Jaish-e Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and other terrorists from Indian prisons.

Mr. Stanekzai’s ‘peace signal’ is being interpreted widely as Taliban’s changing stance towards India because the country currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council. But diplomatic observers here have pointed out that the realism on both sides is tinted heavily with the role of the United States as the arbiter of multilateral agenda at the UN Security Council where it is the “pen holder” on issues related to Afghanistan and terrorism. This was clearly visible in two statements that the UNSC issued this month.

A statement from the UN Security Council issued a day after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, mentioned “Taliban” unambiguously and urged it not to allow terrorists to operate from its soil. But another statement issued on August 27 removed Taliban from the text stating, “no Afghan group or individual should support terrorists..”. The changing stance on Taliban and its allied partner, the Haqqani Network — currently in charge of capital Kabul’s security — has been highlighted by the suicide attacks at the Kabul airport that were blamed on the Islamic State fighters that are posing a threat to the Taliban in Afghan cities like Kabul and Jalalabad.

Mr. Stanekzai’s realism regarding India is aimed to help brighten the chances of delisting of the groups like Haqqani Network from the list of global terrorists. India has been an advocate of tough measures against the Haqqani Network and continues to regard the Taliban officially as a terror outfit. But in recent months India’s own statements at the UNSC and UN Human Rights Council were cautiously worded and avoided mention of the Taliban. Experts here say that this prolonged display of caution on the part of India shows that New Delhi is “playing a role” within the framework defined by the Doha agreement between the United States with the Taliban.

The last few days of August and the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly in September are expected to be highly significant as the U.S. pushes ahead with evacuation from Afghanistan by August 31. As Chairman of the Taliban Sanctions Committee, India may have to deliberate on whether to keep the leaders of the Haqqani Network in the list of global terrorists. The other significant issue before the UNSC is that of representation of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan at the global platforms which at present is being represented by the ambassador of the previous government of President Ghani.

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