Taliban Spokesperson Suhail Shaheen

Amid the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan ahead of the September 11 deadline set by US President Joe Biden, and India’s policy on the rapidly changing ground situation in favour of the Taliban mired in doubt and uncertainty, the Taliban Saturday said they believe in “peaceful coexistence” with their neighbourhood and region.

“Pakistan is our neighbour, we have shared values and history. India is also our regional country. None can change one’s neighbours or region. We must accept this reality and have peaceful coexistence. That is in the interest of all,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in response to questions on how the Taliban viewed India’s role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, and what their views were on the Kashmir issue.

He described the Taliban as a “nationalist Islamic force”, whose goals were “the liberation of Afghanistan from foreign occupation and establishment of an Islamic government” there.

There have been reports recently that Indian officials have established contact with some sections in the Taliban, possibly Mullah

Baradar too. India was left out of the Afghan peace process, which first saw the Trump administration do a deal with the Taliban for withdrawal of forces. Pakistan played the facilitator, and in the next phase, brought the Taliban and Afghan government representatives together for talks.

Through the last two decades, Delhi’s development assistance of around $3 billion to Afghanistan gave it a good-size footprint in that country, much to the chagrin of Pakistan. But India’s future role in Afghanistan is uncertain, especially if the Taliban become the dominant political force.

Appearing to confirm reports that Delhi may be adjusting to the new reality by reaching out to the Taliban, a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said India was in touch with all “stakeholders” in Afghanistan.

But Shaheen said he had no comment on these reports “because I don’t know about it”.

However, in response to public remarks by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla Friday that the Taliban’s “relentless pursuit of power through violence”, “targeted assassinations” and “territorial aggression” had made the situation in Afghanistan “fluid” and “uncertain”, Shaheen said this was a “distortion” of the reality.

“That India says Taliban are triggering violence is an effort to distort the ground realities. This undermines their credibility in the Afghan issue,” he said.

He said the reality was that when the Taliban announced a 3-day ceasefire to coincide with Eid celebrations last month, the Afghan government — he referred to it as the “Kabul administration” — viewed it a sign of weakness.

He alleged that the Afghan forces “launched vast offensives against us immediately after the third day of the ceasefire in Baghlan, Helmand and Herat provinces. When we reacted to their offensives, their forces didn’t hold the ground, evacuating military posts and bases one after the other. This is what it is.”

Since May 1, when NATO and US troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan towards the September 11 deadline, fighting has intensified, with Taliban taking control of more and more areas. In many reports, the situation in Afghanistan is now described as “war like”. The Eid truce was a short respite from the Taliban advance.

According to Long War Journal, an online news and analysis portal on the US war in Afghanistan, supported by a US think tank called the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, the Taliban now control 105 districts out of Afghanistan’s 398 districts.