Batchmates at IMA, Dehradun, describe Stanikzai as an 'unremarkable' foreign cadet who did not betray any hardliner tendencies. Today, he is one Taliban's most public faces and found at negotiating tables all over the world.
Weeks after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, head of the Taliban’s Political Office, met with Deepak Mittal, Ambassador of India to Qatar, in Doha. This was the first-ever official acknowledgement of the Centre’s engagement with the Taliban.
However, this wasn’t Stanikzai’s first engagement with India. In fact, he trained with the Indian Army as a jawan at the Army Cadet College, Nowgaon, for three years between 1979 and 1982 and later as an officer at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, reported NDTV.
Who is Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai?
Ethnically a Pashtun, Stanikzai was reportedly born in 1963 in the Baraki Barak district in Afghanistan. He studied political science in his home country before joining the IMA’s Bhagat Battalion Keren Company. He was only 20 when he travelled to India under the Indo-Afghan defence cooperation programme and was one of 45 foreign cadets in the Keren Company.
The IMA has been training cadets from a number of African and Asian countries, including Afghanistan since 1948.
However, it was unfathomable that a moderate and reserved cadet who was fondly called ‘Sheru’ by his batch mates (the 1982 batch) would go on to become the top Taliban leader negotiating with India today.
“He was part of a different company and battalion, but we were in the same batch. I remember him as being quite unremarkable, in the sense that he blended in,” said Brigadier Sandeep Thapar (Retd), Stanikzai’s 1982 batchmate, in an exclusive interview with ThePrint.
Remembering his time at the academy, many of his batch mates said he was never a hardliner nor very religious at the time, reported The Times of India.
“Usually the foreign cadets would keep to themselves. He didn’t express any outright views. But now we are rediscovering him once again,” said Brigadier Thapar.
Today, Stanikzai is one of the key leaders controlling the Taliban’s narrative in Afghanistan. Unlike other Taliban leaders, he is fluent in English and has travelled to multiple countries on diplomatic missions and served as the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Taliban government when they first controlled Afghanistan in 1996-2001.
He travelled to the US in 1996 in an unsuccessful bid to convince the Bill Clinton administration to recognise the Taliban government. Reuters reported that he also made trips to China to meet with top officials during this time.
Recently, when Abdul Hakim Haqqani engaged in negotiations with the US-backed Afghan government, Stanikzai served as deputy negotiator to Haqqani.
Stanikzai directly addressed India in a video statement on August 28 and said the Taliban wishes to maintain “good relations” with the country.
Also read: Taliban wants friendly ties with Delhi; says won't let Pakistan use Afghanistan against India
First Published: IST