Afghanistan is once again in thrall to the Taliban after the terror outfit seized control of Kabul this Sunday, effectively taking control of the entire country following a rapid offensive. The terror outfit has displayed remarkable resilience in establishing its hegemony two decades after the US forces toppled its regime in what led to America’s longest war.
Despite its leadership being routinely eliminated in the US attacks, the terror group kept attracting terrorists from assorted backgrounds to continue its jihad in establishing an Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan. The group, which rose to prominence on the back of a swift offensive, is shepherded by a group of seven powerful leaders, one of whom is Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Head of Political Office of Taliban.
Stanikzai, an integral part of the Talibani leadership, had once served as a cadet at the prestigious Indian Military Academy in Uttarakhand’s Dehradun and was fondly called ‘Sheru’ by his course mates from the 1982 batch, who remember him as a moderate and not religiously inclined. He was 20-years-old when he travelled to India under the Indo-Afghan defence cooperation programme and became one of the 45 foreign gentlemen cadets of the Bhagat Battalion’s Keren Company at the academy.
According to a report in the Times of India, Stanikzai was “well-built, not too tall and never a hardliner”. Many of his batchmates at the Indian Military Academy remember him as a “likeable” person, a bit precocious than his age, and someone who enjoyed his time at the academy.
So, what transformed a content Afghan soldier who had his training at the IMA into a hardline Taliban leader? What precipitated his turn from military forces to the Islamist terror organisation Taliban?
Stanikzai’s early years in Afghan army and his training at the IMA
An ethnic Pashtun, Stanikzai was born in 1963 in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province of Afghanistan.
After completing his masters in political science, Sher Mohammad Stanikzai joined the IMA where he trained for 1.5 years after the Indian military institute was involved in training Afghan army officials in combat.
Major General DA Chaturvedi (retired), one of the IMA veterans who trained alongside Stanikzai, remembered him as a likeable guy who seemed a little older than the other cadets at the academy. Chaturvedi, in his interview with the Times of India, said Stanikzai had a striking moustache and had no radical views at the time. “He was simply an average Afghan cadet who seemed to be enjoying his time here,” Chaturvedi said.
For another batchmate, Colonel Kesar Singh Shekhawat(retd), Stanikzai was like “the kid next door”. He remembers an anecdote from their time during the training together when they went to Rishikesh and took a bath in the holy Ganges. Shekhawat even has a photograph of him in his swimming trunks from a day when they had gone to the river in Rishikesh and taken a bath there.
Yet another batch mate remembers Stanikzai as someone who was considerate of people around him, stating that even if he smoked cigarettes, he would do it away from the attention of others.
After completing his training at the IMA, Stanikzai went back to join the Afghan National Army as a lieutenant. He fought the Soviet-Afghan war, initially with Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi’s Islamic and National Revolution Movement of Afghanistan, and later with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, as commander of its south-western front.
Shift to the Taliban
After being associated with the Afghan Army and taking part in the Soviet-Afghan war, Stanikzai took a radical turn and joined the Taliban in 1996.
But his time with the Afghan forces and his international experience set him apart from the local Taliban fighters. In an article published in the New York Times, Stanikzai’s old friend said that he did not fit in well with the terror outfit initially. He cited instances when Stanikzai would go out to restaurants in Quetta, Pakistan with his wife, which led to gossip-mongering among the terrorists.
In the years between 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Stanikzai served as deputy minister of foreign affairs under foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and later deputy minister of health. He often gave interviews to foreign media during the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 as he spoke English well.
In 1996, Stanikzai travelled to Washington DC as acting foreign minister to seek diplomatic recognition of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from the Clinton administration.
He remained an important figure for the Taliban over the years but in 1998 his fortunes took a turn for worse after he ran afoul of the Talibani leadership. However, his close relationship with Pakistani military intelligence helped him in reconciling with the Taliban.
Ascendancy to the top leadership of the Taliban
Stanikzai later proved an invaluable asset for the terror organisation as the Taliban charted a path to regain its hegemony after being ousted and destroyed by the US forces in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In January 2012, Stanikzai arrived in Qatar to facilitate the opening of the Taliban’s political office in the country. Three years later, in August 2015, Stanikzai was appointed as the acting head of the political office in Qatar following Tayyab Agha’s resignation.
In 2016, Stanikzai travelled to China and represented the Taliban for their talks with the Chinese officials. Then in August 2018, he led a delegation of Taliban officials to Uzbekistan. There, the delegation met Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and Uzbekistan’s special representative to Afghanistan Ismatilla Irgashev. In the same year, Stanikzai travelled to Indonesia for discussions with officials, meeting Indonesian First Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla, Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Hamid Awaluddin, Indonesia’s special representative for Afghanistan.
Stanikzai also served as deputy negotiator Abdul Hakim Haqqani, head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, on talks with Afghan government officials. In September 2020, Stanikzai was declared as the chief negotiator to discuss peace with the Afghan government. But, days before the meeting, it was announced that he would act as a deputy to Abdul Hakim.
For senior Afghan analyst Andrew Watkins, one word that aptly describes Stanikzai is “survivor”. Watkins, who works for the International Crisis Group – a Washington-based think tank, told in his interview with the Washington Post that Stanikzai has never been a big mover within the Taliban organisation. He remains up there in the shadows of the higher ranks and has managed to retain just enough heft to stay alive and active, Watkins said.
As the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, Stanikzai remains one of the linchpins of the terror organisations that are trying to portray a moderate face to the world, in their bid to earn global recognition and add legitimacy to their claim to rule the country.