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

In an exclusive interview with ThePrint in Kabul, Abdul Qahar Balkhi also spoke on issues of girls' education, the late al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri's presence there & Islamic State attacks.

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Kabul: The Taliban helped give safe passage to India’s diplomats and other citizens when they wanted to leave Kabul amidst the chaos that overtook the city exactly a year ago — on 15 August, 2021 — when former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country with a few key aides and the Afghanistan capital was taken over by the Taliban, said the spokesman of the now Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs, Abdul Qahar Balkhi.

In an exclusive interview with ThePrint in Kabul, Balkhi said that “India temporarily suspended its operations (of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan) last year” when the Taliban walked into Kabul, although several nations like Russia and China stayed, adding, “we gave safe passage to India to leave”.

One year later, as India celebrates its 75th independence day and the Islamic Emirate its first anniversary in power, Balkhi said that today, “we welcome (India’s) return” to Kabul.

India does not recognise the Taliban interim government, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but the embassy in Kabul — closed when the Taliban made a return to power in the the country — was reopened in June, when New Delhi deployed a “technical team” consisting of diplomats and others to the Afghan capital to “closely monitor and coordinate” the delivery of humanitarian assistance there.

India had also introduced an e-visa system in August last year for Afghans visiting India. But issuing of visas started only recently.

“We, (the Islamic Emirate) congratulate India on its independence day. We are also glad and happy that Afghanistan has finally regained its sovereignty after 43 years…the conflict is over, criminal elements and syndicates will try and disturb the peace, but we will always try and neutralise those threats,” said Balkhi.

In a statement on Saturday Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson had welcomed “India’s step to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Kabul”, to the level of a senior diplomat, a minister-counsellor position.

When ThePrint pointed out that India had, in fact, not recognised the Islamic Emirate yet, Balkhi said, “de facto recognition has taken place, direct flights have been resumed between the two countries and we are working on visa issuance and consular services”.

He added: “We have civilisational ties with India and steps are being taken for de jure recognition. It is not in the interest of any country to see Afghanistan unstable and be a centre that proves to be a challenge to other countries.”

On the question of Indian visas for Afghans — thousands of Afghan students studying in Indian educational institutions, as well as patients dependent on Indian doctors were forced to look at alternatives in the wake of the Indian visa clampdown when the Taliban took power — Balkhi indicated that some relaxation was in the offing.

But he was outright dismissive of Indian concerns that the reason Afghan visas had been blocked was because Afghan passports with valid Indian visas could have been misused by other countries.

“I don’t believe that this fear is warranted. It holds no basis. It is irrational,” Balkhi said.

That’s why, he added, countries have visa sections and consular wings, to prevent incidents like this from taking place.

Balkhi also spoke at some length about the situation in Afghanistan in the past year, including the challenges faced by the Islamic Emirate — on the question of women’s rights, freedoms denied to girl children from going to high school and suicide attacks by the Islamic State terror group in which scores of innocent people have been killed.

Also readNameless airport, IS attack, Delhi paan, vanilla ice cream — Kabul, a year after Taliban return

‘Afghanistan shared home of all Afghans’

Answering ThePrint’s question on what al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was doing in Kabul, before he was killed last month by an American missile launched from a drone, Balkhi denied that the Taliban leadership was even “aware” of al-Zawahiri’s arrival or presence in Kabul.

“We don’t agree with the US assessment (that he was found in a house in the heart of Kabul). We will continue our investigation and try to separate fact from fiction. That investigation is ongoing,” Balkhi said.

On the question of why the Islamic Emirate didn’t allow girls studying in grades above six to go to school, when boys could do so, Balkhi said that the government was “working very hard” to address the concerns of parents.

He said high schools for girls were open in more than a dozen provinces of Afghanistan — the country has a total of 34 provinces.

While Balkhi was mildly critical of Taliban guards firing into the air to contain a group of women protestors in downtown Kabul on the weekend, who had raised slogans of “Bread, work and freedom”, saying that security officials need to be trained better to handle such unsanctioned protests, he added that the “important thing was that no one was hurt”.

The Afghanistan foreign ministry spokesman appealed for understanding for the behavior of young Taliban men frightening young women in several parts of the country and holding them in detention on the charge of not being accompanied by a male escort. “We have gone through 43 years of conflict. There will be and continue to be incidents like this, but our government will hold individuals responsible for violating the law,” he said.

On the question of why Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers were continuing to target innocent people and Taliban ideologues like Rahimullah Haqqani, who was killed in a bomb blast last week, Balkhi alleged that the IS “believes they are the only Muslims on the face of this planet. They excommunicate the majority of Muslims — Sufis, other Muslims that aspire to different interpretations. The significant point is that they have no support inside Afghanistan.”

He said the government would not rest until IS was completely eliminated from Afghanistan.

Asked whether people of all religions, including Hindus and Sikhs, were welcome in the Islamic Emirate, Balkhi pointed to the support given to Afghanistan’s small Sikh community in the defence of its faith.

“Afghanistan is the shared home of all Afghans. Minority groups like Hindus and Sikhs have a long history (here). We have provided them with protection. We have returned them the properties that were usurped and taken by force by the previous administration in Jalalabad and elsewhere,” Balkhi claimed.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also readHas Taliban changed? In Kabul, a prized partridge for sale, ‘mahram’ escorts for women


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