A Week After Afghan Embassy Upheaval, Artful Politicking Around 'Taliban' Label

The Taliban-dominated Afghan government’s new pick to run the embassy, Mohammad Qadir Shah has claimed that his reputation was being tarnished by this ‘forced’ identification with the Taliban. Meanwhile, India's silence has spoken, feel some quarters.

New Delhi: A week after the Taliban’s attempt to change leadership at the Afghan embassy erupted into the public eye, there seems to now be a stalemate – with India’s reticence providing hints on which way it is leaning.

The official Afghan ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, appointed by the previous republic, told The Wire that he expects New Delhi to “take reasonable and appropriate steps in line with diplomatic norms”.

Meanwhile, the Taliban-dominated Afghan government’s new pick to run the embassy, Mohammad Qadir Shah, who has been ‘expelled’ by the embassy, remains defiant and aligns with the implicit Indian position that it is an “internal matter”.

The perception of whether an appointment authorised by Kabul should be described as representing the Taliban government is now a point of contention, with Shah arguing that such a label would be inaccurate.

There has been no response from the Indian government – a fact which has also been interpreted by both sides differently.

A letter from Kabul

The current impasse began after the acting Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi signed a letter on April 25. It said the trade counsellor, Mohammed Qadir Shah, would take over immediately as charge d’affaires of the New Delhi embassy, while Mamundzay was recalled to Kabul. 

According to embassy insiders, the ambassador, who was in the UK, learned about the letter through a phone call from Qadir Shah. It is alleged that Shah accessed the letter directly from Kabul a day before it was sent to the head of the chancery, who was in charge of the embassy in Mamundzay’s absence.

However, Shah denied that he had directly received the letter from Kabul. Instead, he stated that he was informed about the letter from the acting ambassador in India.

Over the next couple of days, there seem to have been a series of phone conversations between Mamundzay and Shah, but they did not move the needle.

Meanwhile, a meeting was held in New Delhi of the remaining 10 Afghan diplomats, chaired by the acting ambassador. They decided to “expel” Qadir Shah and served him a “termination letter” which is apparently within the power of the head of mission, as per embassy sources.

Three days after the Kabul letter, Shah sent a self-signed communication to the Ministry of External Affairs that conveyed that he had been assigned as Charge d’Affaires. 

‘Distance’ from the Taliban

It was this letter which indicated that Shah wanted to distinguish himself from the Emirate. 

Shah noted that he had referred to himself in the letter to the MEA as the “Charge d’ Affairs of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in India”. “It is very clear that nowhere in the communication there is any mention of ‘Taliban or Islamic Emirates’,” he stated.

While Shah said that he was not portraying himself as a representative of the Taliban regime, embassy sources contended that the letter addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) referenced the April 25 letter signed by Minister Muttaqi, albeit without explicitly mentioning the Emirate.

In India, there is no official recognition of the Taliban government and any overt link to the regime in Kabul might not be advantageous in terms of public perception.

Shah claimed to The Wire that his reputation was being tarnished by this ‘forced’ identification with the Taliban. He stated that he was not affiliated to the Taliban, but was only a bureaucrat. “I am an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he asserted.

When it was pointed out that the letter of appointment was signed by the Emirate’s foreign minister, Shah disputed that it meant that he would represent them. 

“The letter clearly said that I was to maintain and take care of the current status. The embassy is operating under the Islamic Republic flag. It doesn’t mean that there will be a change. Only the ambassador has been recalled,” Shah told The Wire.

Allegations of corruption

Nearly three weeks after the April 25 letter, the issue first came into public with an article published by an Afghan news agency, Bokhdi, on May 13. The translated headline said that India had “handed over” the embassy to the Taliban.

The next day, Tolo News posted screenshots of an unsigned letter from ‘Afghans refugees based in India’. The letter names three diplomats, including the ambassador, and accuses them of “corruption” related to a lease agreement with an Indian company related to properties owned by the embassy. A few hours later, the Afghan embassy issued a denial over the corruption charges. 

Later on the same day, US-based media outlet Amu Television published a copy of the April 25 letter from Kabul that had triggered the entire chain of events.

After The Wire and others in the Indian media reported on the instructions from Kabul, the Afghan embassy issued a new statement on May 15. Without naming Shah, the statement said that the embassy “rejects the claim from an individual claiming to have taken charge of the mission in New Delhi at the behest of the Taliban”. He was also accused of being behind a “baseless and unsubstantiated campaign” with “fabricated allegations of corruption based on an unsigned letter”.

Last December, an Indian company wrote letters to several Indian government departments claiming that they were owed money by the Afghan embassy over a contract to lease buildings for commercial purposes and build an Afghan cultural centre. After preliminary queries were made, the Indian businessman who had initially made that complaint went quiet. 

Embassy sources claimed that there had been a misunderstanding which was resolved and that there were no court proceedings as alleged.

This allegation apparently stemmed from the Afghan embassy’s need to fund its operations, which are currently financed through its revenue from consular services. 

A line of defence

According to the sources, the embassy had hoped to earn more revenue by renting out residential flats at their property in Nyaya Marg, for which the Indian company was roped in as a real estate consultant. Embassy insiders alleged that the embassy ended its relationship with the company because it could not find suitable tenants, following which it served claims for compensation for renovation work at the properties.

With the embassy staffers giving their version of the events, Shah claimed that he was forced to come out publicly to defend himself.

Shah asserted that he had not been in contact with the Taliban government to discuss the matter before the April 25 letter was issued. “I have never been in touch with them, honestly,” he said.

When asked why his name was put forth as CDA by acting Minister Mutaqqi, Shah explained that his role as a trade counsellor necessitated communication from his office with Kabul to facilitate trade between Afghanistan and India. “For that, my office was in touch with some departments in Afghanistan”.

The Trade office was recently instrumental in facilitating the movement of Indian wheat on Afghan trucks through the Wagah border checkpoint to Pakistani territory.

“The reputation of the office and the comments from the people were positive. And also because I am number two in the mission after the ambassador. That’s why I was chosen,” Shah told The Wire.

Since the fall of the Islamic Republic and the takeover by the Taliban, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul had routinely issued instructions to embassies across the world, but they were ignored in most world capitals where the missions were controlled by diplomats appointed by the previous government.

While this is the first time that the leadership of the embassy has been targeted, It is learnt from embassy sources that the foreign ministry in Kabul had given a number of orders to dismantle some of their wings dealing with higher education, defence, trade and culture. 

There were also instructions to recall officials in the embassy who were on deputation. Besides, letters had also been received to facilitate the appointment of at least two Taliban officials at the embassy. But, these were ignored and not forwarded to the Indian government, as per the sources.

Incidentally, the embassy officials claim that they have not issued any new passports or visas printed by the Emirate. “Our passport extension documents and stamps from Bonn in Germany. Taliban are issuing passports largely for those missions that they control,” said a diplomatic source.

India’s leanings

The absence of any response from the Indian government mirrors the perception on Raisina Hill that this dispute stems from Kabul and does not necessitate intervention from Delhi.

India’s stance towards the Taliban has considerably mellowed since August 2020. The doors were cracked open through humanitarian aid, medicines and covid-19. The return of Indian diplomats to the Afghan capital, albeit as a ‘technical team’, was a recognition of the reality on the ground. 

In that context, the continuing silence is interpreted, in certain quarters, as an implicit endorsement for leadership at the Afghan embassy that maintains stronger ties with Kabul.

The Afghan embassy’s position is that India should make its views clear. It pointedly highlighted in its statement of April 15 that none of the other 14 embassies controlled by Taliban appointees are in “democratic” countries.

In a response to The Wire, Mamundzay indicated that he expected the Indian government to take action against Shah since he had been removed from the embassy

“The mission is keen to continue representing the former republic and considers the interest of the Afghan people, both in India and Afghanistan as a priority. On this particular issue of Mr Shah, we expect relevant Indian authorities to take reasonable and appropriate steps in line with diplomatic norms, while considering the long historic Indo-Afghan friendship,” he said.

Shah, who is barred from the embassy premises, would like a response to his letter to the MEA. At the same time, he noted, “But, this is our internal Afghan matter and we should solve it”. 

He stated that he made four unsuccessful attempts to visit the embassy. “I have sent them emails and messages, but not getting any response. They don’t want to even talk to me. They should listen and discuss this with me,” Shah said.