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Wary of Haqqani influence, Modi govt unlikely to respond to Taliban outreach immediately

The Taliban has been assuring India that it faces no threat from them and instead welcomes trade and business ties. But New Delhi believes it is 'too early' to engage in any dialogue.

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New Delhi: India, which has so far maintained a stoic silence on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, has no plans to engage with the militant group that gate-crashed into Kabul more than a fortnight ago, since it believes it is “too early” to enter into any kind of dialogue, multiple sources told ThePrint.

According to top sources ThePrint spoke to, New Delhi will not rush to recognise the Taliban even after it forms the government as it remains concerned with the power and responsibilities being given by it to the Haqqani network, a designated terror group with links to the al Qaeda, especially at a time when Pakistan’s influence in the country is only increasing.

India was amongst the first countries to shut down its embassy in Kabul within 24 hours of the Taliban taking over Kabul, citing security threats.

The Taliban, however, have time and again made it clear that India will not be harmed in any way. Last Saturday, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, said the militant group wants good relations with New Delhi, especially in business and trade.

Prior to Stanikzai’s remarks, one of Taliban’s key spokespersons in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, had said the group appreciates what India has done for the development of Afghanistan during the past two decades.

India has so far not given any official response to these overtures. According to one source, New Delhi is waiting to see what kind of government the Taliban will form, given that the security of Kabul city has been handed over to the Haqqani Network. India sees both the Taliban as well as the Haqqani Network as terror outfits.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had also called it “early days” to engage with the Taliban.

Rakesh Sood, former Indian Ambassador to Kabul, also told ThePrint: “We don’t need to give any signal at this stage. There was a security threat and that is why we closed the embassy … some other countries also did so, and those who didn’t, stayed open … It’s a question of what can you do at this stage when Kabul city itself has become so unsafe. Now there is not only the Taliban, but Haqqani Network, the ISIS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan) … where is the conducive environment to carry out any kind of bilateral relations?”

For now, the Narendra Modi government’s priority is to evacuate the hundreds of Indian nationals still in Afghanistan. It is also waiting for commercial flights to resume before it can start issuing e-visas to those looking to leave Afghanistan, which includes several senior officials from the former Ashraf Ghani government. Among the Afghan nationals evacuated by India so far, most belong to the Sikh or Hindu community.

Also read: Pakistan vs Qatar — it could be a dirty contest over who will mentor Taliban now

The Haqqani ‘upset’

India, sources said, is particularly “upset” with the kind of power the Taliban is bestowing upon the dreaded Haqqani Network, which is rising to power in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ghani government and the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops.

The Haqqani Network is closely linked to al Qaeda, the terror group that carried out the 9/11 attacks that led to the US invasion in Afghanistan. The network is believed to have taken birth in Pakistan under the guidance of the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Anas Haqqani — the youngest son of the Haqqani Network’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani — recently said in an interview that there is no difference between the Taliban and the Haqqanis. “We are the Taliban,” he had said.

Anas is now one of the front-runners in the yet-to-be-formed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. As chief negotiator for the group, he has already done his share of networking with former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and former peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, a fact that will likely have bearing as he seeks a larger say in the new Afghan government.

Meanwhile, India, which invested heavily in the previous Ghani government, also kept its doors open to the Taliban. This was evident in India’s participation at the intra-Afghan peace talks that began in Doha in 2020.

As the tables began to turn over the past few months, India was cautious in the statements issued at the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the UN Human Rights Council, by omitting references to the Taliban.

On Monday, the UNSC adopted a resolution requiring the Taliban to honour their commitment to let people leave Afghanistan freely, but the measure did not cite a “safe zone”.

Also read: Akhundzada, Haqqani, Mullah Yaqoob —  The Taliban’s key leaders who could lead Afghanistan

First step should be establishing stability

According to another source, New Delhi believes that any new government that comes to power in the war-ravaged country will have to first bring in stability and security before the Taliban and its affiliates look for good diplomatic relations with any country.

With the presence of ISIS-Khorasan, a faction of the militant Islamic State, sources told ThePrint it will be difficult not just for India but other countries too, to give legitimacy to a Taliban-led government given the high chances that Afghanistan could once again become a terror haven.

Former ambassador Sood said, “Russia and China have kept their embassies open … They should be first to recognise the Taliban government in that case. Why are they not doing it? After all, they are Permanent Members of the UN. Why they cannot come out with a statement recognising the new government in Kabul?”

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, another former ambassador who in November 2001, as Charge d’Affaires, had re-opened the Indian Embassy in Kabul after the ouster of the Taliban, said, “There are basically two issues. First, we would like to know how sincere they are vis-a-vis India, and second, whether and how they will co-exist with the majority of Afghan brothers and sisters who have been our partners over the last 20 years, with whom we share values of civil, political and human rights and freedoms and opportunities, and who are now seeking to leave Afghanistan in desperation.”

Mukhopadhaya, currently a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, also said, “We have blessed and supported an inclusive peace process through the intra-Afghan talks at Doha, which the Taliban were a party to. Unfortunately, they opted for a military takeover instead. We should not abandon our friends for 20 years for the Taliban for the sake of expediency unless they too are accommodated.”

“The question now is, having taken power by force, can assurances (given by the Taliban leaders) be taken at face value, or is it being said to secure legitimacy from the one country with whom Afghanistan has had historic ties but not yet dealt with openly?

“Can they really guarantee our security interests against those of the ISI whether it relates to the security of our embassies, consulates, personnel including local staff, or Pakistan-based anti-Indian terrorist agencies, or Kashmir, or Pakistan and now perhaps China? … We should hold our responses until they reach a mutually acceptable power-sharing or political settlement that accommodates all political interests in an inclusive government,” he added.

The Taliban recently appointed Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantanamo detainee, as their acting defence minister. It also appointed Najibullah, a seasoned Taliban fighter, as their intelligence chief, among others.

Taliban leaders are also expected to attend the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in an informal capacity. The SCO summit will take place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 16-17 September. An SCO-Afghanistan contact group will also be meeting during this summit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to participate in the meeting virtually, though an official announcement is yet to be made.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: With Taliban return, question for India — will infrastructure investments amount to anything


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