In what is being seen as a signal to India, a member of the Taliban leadership in Qatar has said that India is “very important for this subcontinent” and that his group wants to continue Afghanistan’s “cultural”, “economic”, “political” and “trade ties” with India “like in the past”.
This overture was made by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, deputy head of Taliban’s office in Doha, in a carefully scripted statement that he read out in Pashto in a 46-minute video message broadcast Saturday on the group’s social media platforms and Afghanistan’s Milli Television.
The signal is significant given that Pakistan holds the levers to the Taliban, and Islamabad and Rawalpindi have always seen India’s ties with Afghanistan as a negative influence. It is also the first categorical statement directed at India by a senior leader of the Taliban since they captured power in Kabul on August 15.
The Indian Express reported Sunday that the United Nations Security Council, with India as its president for the month of August, had dropped a reference to the Taliban from a paragraph in its statement asking Afghan groups to not support terrorists “operating on the territory of any other country”.
Stanekzai, incidentally, was at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun in the 1980s as part of training for Afghan army cadets. In 1996, he had made a similar overture to India after the Taliban’s first takeover of Kabul when he was Deputy Foreign Minister of a caretaker regime.
This time, his statements come at a time when India has evacuated its entire Indian diplomatic contingent from the embassy in Kabul.
Tracking actions on ground
This is the Taliban’s first outreach to India since the group captured power two weeks ago. A wary Delhi will, however, wait and watch for demonstrable behaviour on the ground in Afghanistan that shows good faith by the Taliban, including its treatment of Afghans who have worked with India.
“India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past,” he said.
“We give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard,” he said.
On the Taliban’s plans for trade in the region, Stanekzai said: “Trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us. With India, trade through air corridors will also remain open.”
This is again an important statement from India’s point of view since Pakistan has always blocked overland transit, trade and access between India and Afghanistan.
Speaking on Afghanistan’s relations with Turkmenistan, Stanekzai listed the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project and said the Taliban would work to address the problems that are holding up the venture once a government is formed.
Stanekzai also referred to the Chabahar port developed by India while speaking about relations with Iran, and highlighted its importance for trade.
Over the last two weeks, Taliban spokespersons Suhail Shaheen and Zabiullah Mujahid have also spoken about the group’s views on relations with India.
South Block, which is tracking all these statements carefully, is yet to respond to these messages. But officials have pointed out that the Taliban had cooperated for the safe passage of Indian diplomats and nationals, and Afghans, who were evacuated from Kabul.