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Taliban wants to have its man in Delhi & controversial spokesman Balkhi could be in the running

Taliban's request to station representative poses complex diplomatic challenge as India seeks to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan.

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New Delhi: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) has begun pushing New Delhi to allow it to station a representative in the Indian capital, Afghan diplomatic officials have told ThePrint. The proposed candidates for the position, sources said, include Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a controversial spokesperson for the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry who is alleged to have intimidated journalists with death threats. 

The request to station an IEA representative in New Delhi — which has reopened its mission in Kabul but does not recognise the Taliban regime — poses a complex diplomatic challenge for India as it seeks to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) declined to comment on the Taliban’s request.

IEA foreign ministry officials, the sources said, first proposed sending a representative in July last year, when an MEA team led by joint secretary J.P. Singh visited Kabul.

Ever since that visit, three Indian diplomats and local staff have been stationed in Kabul — together with an estimated 80 personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police — monitoring the delivery of humanitarian aid sent to the country, including food and medicine. The MEA is also believed to be considering reopening its consulate in Kandahar, which was shuttered after the fall of Kabul.

Taliban officials have also engaged with India’s intelligence services, the sources said, seeking to address New Delhi’s concerns that the regime is harbouring cadres of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and al-Qaeda. 

In a 2019 report, United Nations monitors had warned that members of these groups were serving the Taliban, “acting as advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices”. The UN monitoring mission closed when the Taliban took over.

New Delhi also hopes to resume its own development projects in the region, to push back against growing Chinese influence. Last week, China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company made a $150 million commitment to prospect for gas and oil in the Amu Darya basin, in northern Afghanistan.

Also Read: For Afghan women, world is uniting again—this time to leave them to their fate

Enigmatic Envoy

Little is known about Balkhi, who travels under an Afghan diplomatic passport identifying him as Hasan Bahiss, born in Baghlan on 15 July 1988. Educated and brought up in the town of Hamilton in New Zealand — where his family still lives — Balkhi and his brother are believed to have travelled to Pakistan in 2010 where they joined the Taliban’s cultural commission. For several years afterwards, intelligence sources say, he travelled on a New Zealand passport.

Ibraheem Bahiss, a prominent commentator and analyst with the International Crisis Group, was also alleged to be the foreign ministry spokesperson’s brother. Bahiss did not respond to a query from ThePrint seeking clarification.

After the fall of Kabul, Balkhi had been accused of threatening to kill the veteran Australian journalist Lynne O’Donnell, for reportage hostile to the Taliban.

The would-be envoy has also drawn attention for his views on women. In one tweet, Balkhi pushed back against the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which noted that “women in Afghanistan have had many of their most fundamental rights restricted or rescinded in a country that has one of the highest levels of violence against women”.

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Delicate Balance 

Experts warn that allowing an IEA representative to be formally stationed in New Delhi could damage relationships with anti-Taliban groups — many of whom supported India even before 9/11. “The fundamental question India needs to address,” argued Ajai Sahni, the director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, “is what end it is seeking in Afghanistan. The relationships that need to be developed flow from the answer.”

“Things are fragile in Afghanistan right now,” said one intelligence officer, “and with the Taliban itself divided into multiple factions, things could unravel in the not-too-distant future. India’s interests are best served by maintaining ties to all sides.”

Anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan have been dismayed by India’s reluctance to grant visas, even to students and patients. While former Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah has visited Delhi, where his family lives, diplomatic sources said, other senior opposition figures have been denied permission to travel to the country.

Even though the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has continued to enjoy diplomatic status since the Taliban came to power last year, its status remains ambiguous. According to a senior embassy official, it continues to issue travel documents, visas and official documents that are recognised by the Islamic Emirate.

Large numbers of Afghan embassy personnel in New Delhi, however, have received refugee in Canada and Europe. The Taliban hopes it could be allowed to fill these positions with its own staff after they fall vacant, diplomatic sources said.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

Also Read: Gave safe passage to India to leave, says Taliban foreign ministry spokesman, ‘welcome return’


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