Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai
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India days, and beyond
To the 1982 batch of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, he was “Sheru” — well-built, not very tall, and never religiously inclined. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, 60, is now one of the seven most powerful men in the Taliban regime about to take the reins of Afghanistan.
Stanikzai was 20 when he came in, one of the 45 gentlemen cadets of the Bhagat Battalion’s Keren Company at the IMA. “He was a likeable guy who seemed a little older than the other cadets at the academy. He kept this striking moustache. He certainly had no radical views at the time. He was an average Afghan cadet who seemed to be enjoying his time here,” Major General DA Chaturvedi (retired), his batchmate and a recipient of the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal and Sena Medal, told TOI.
The IMA had been taking in foreign cadets since Independence and Afghan cadets since 1971, after the India-Pakistan War. Stanikzai was a direct recruit from the Afghan National Defence & Security Forces. “He was like the kid next door. I remember this one time we went to Rishikesh and bathed in the Ganga. There is a photograph from that day in which Sheru can be seen in IMA swimming trunks with me,” Colonel Kesar Singh Shekhawat (retired), another batchmate, told TOI. “He was so friendly. We’d go exploring the forests and hills on weekends.”
He completed his precommission training at the IMA for a year and a half before joining the Afghan National Army as a lieutenant. It was just after Afghanistan was overrun by the Soviets.
By 1996, Stanikzai had left the army, joined the Taliban and was holding negotiations with the Clinton administration to make the US give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. A New York Times article from 1997 says Stanikzai, “the acting foreign minister” of the Taliban regime, had learned English “in college in India”. In the years that followed, he became one of Taliban’s key negotiators — his English skills and military training had held him in good stead for the outfit. When the group set up its political office in Doha, where its senior leaders stationed themselves, he ran it since 2012 and led talks on behalf of the Taliban before Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of Taliban and tipped to become its new head, was back in 2019. Stanikzai remains one of the top negotiators.
This, his former batchmates said, could be a trump card. “He’d surely have fond memories of his time in India,” said Chaturvedi. “I would say this is an opportunity for the ministry of external affairs to use his network of friends from his IMA days to speak with him and for entering into a dialogue with the Taliban.”