How war, peace and travel shaped Taliban’s face of India outreach

NEW DELHI: In the turbulent endgame to the Afghanistan crisis, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai — Sheru to the Class of 1982 at Dehradun’s Indian Military Academy — has become as much the face of the Taliban’s India outreach as he is the radical regime’s pointsman for political transition.
Back in the 1970s, when the older generation of Afghans experienced the last stretch of peace, Stanekzai and two others who would go on to become central figures in the troubled nation’s history — deposed President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan-American peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad — were all busy finding themselves while studying on scholarships abroad.
Stanekzai, now the chief negotiator for the Taliban, spent those years in military fatigues at the foothills of the Himalayas, training at India’s prestigious military school. On breaks, his batch of young Afghans would find themselves in the hills of Kashmir, or on the sets of Bollywood films hoping for a photo with the stars.

Like the other two, his journey from being an IMA cadet to the deputy head of the Taliban’s political office captures an arc of the long Afghan conflict. At the time, ideological lines back home were already firming up — on one side, a communist approach looking toward the Soviet Union; on the other, a wave of Muslim Brotherhood conservatism.
Some of Stanekzai’s former classmates in India say he largely shied away from politics. But they recall that he leaned toward personal conservatism, including avoiding nonhalal meat. “He was the most disciplined of his batch, very focused and organised,” recalled Abdul Razique Samadi, who was Stanekzai’s senior at IMA. “Even if he smoked a cigarette, he would do it away from our attention.”
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There was little to suggest that Stanekzai would someday become a top aide to one of the Taliban’s main guerrilla commanders, Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf. His role was as a liaison with Pakistani military intelligence — a relationship that, according to those who have known him, has shaped his political career.
While ideologically Stanekzai was with the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, as an urbanite he didn’t quite fit socially, one friend who knew him well in the 1980s said. In Quetta, Pakistan, where their group operated, he would often go out to restaurants with his wife, a subject of gossip among the fighters. The friend recalled Stanekzai berating his fellow mujahedeen for outdated notions about keeping women hidden at home.
When the Pakistan-backed Taliban took over Kabul, sweeping in after the anarchic civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, Stanekzai became deputy foreign minister. His English skills again made him a focal point for the international media and diplomats, a voice for a government that banned public roles for women.
He travelled to the US to seek, unsuccessfully, diplomatic recognition by the then Bill Clinton administration. His name regularly appeared in the Taliban newspaper, Shariat. In 1998, Shariat recorded a change in Stanekzai’s fortunes: he was replaced as deputy foreign minister, and then stopped appearing in news reports altogether for a long stretch.
According to several officials in Kabul at the time, Stanekzai ran afoul of the Taliban leadership, possibly for reasons involving abuse of power and a lax attitude toward alcohol. He was put under house arrest, and was said to have been a personal focus of anger by the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar at the time.
What saved Stanekzai, according to his friends, was his continued connections with the Pakistani military intelligence agency, which wielded clout over the Taliban leadership. A few months later, he reappeared in a demoted capacity, as the deputy minister of health. Stanekzai, however, denied the allegations of misconduct and said his move from the foreign ministry to the health ministry was routine government reshuffling.
Today, his is the face on TV, talking about how the Taliban wants ties with India like it was before, with focus on trade and other economic activities. In a recent televised speech, he even spoke about the possibilities of trade with India via Pakistan, while also calling for air routes to remain open.
(NYT and TNN)