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India's Role in Afghanistan: Need for Greater Engagement

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  • May 04, 2006

    The killing of Kasula Suryanarayana, an Indian telecommunications engineer working for a Bahrain based firm in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan raises important questions on the emerging challenges to India's efforts at reconstruction and stabilization of a "nascent democracy". Suryanarayana was reportedly abducted by the Taliban on April 28 and his abductors linked his safe release to the withdrawal of all Indians working in Afghanistan. Even before the Indian government's special team reached Kabul to negotiate his release, Suryanarayana's beheaded body, with apparent torture marks, was recovered on April 30 at Hassan Kariez district of Zabul, clearly indicating that the Taliban, ever defiant to international norms of engagement, had no intent to negotiate. The message they wanted to convey was one of terror and intimidation.

    Suryanarayana's gruesome killing was not the first instance of an Indian falling victim to the increasing attacks on aid workers by the resurgent Taliban. In November 2005, Maniappan Kutty, a driver working with the Border Roads Organisation's project of building the Zaranj-Delaram highway, was abducted and killed by the Taliban. On November 8, 2003, an Indian telecommunications engineer working for the Afghan Wireless Company was shot dead. In 2003, two Indian engineers - P Murali and G Vardharai working on a road project in Zabul province were abducted. Their release three weeks later came about after intense negotiations by Afghan tribal leaders with the Taliban militia, which was demanding the release of 50 imprisoned militants in return for the Indian engineers. Such incidents raise concerns about the safety of Indians working on reconstruction projects in this conflict-ravaged country. Suryanaraya's killing has led to demands that the Indian government provide security to all Indian citizens working in Afghanistan. After Maniappan's killing, the strength of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) contingent in Afghanistan was augmented to about 200. New Delhi's proposal of deploying its paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel is under consideration by the Afghanistan government.

    It is essential to view Suryanarayana's killing in the context of the overall deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. The US-led efforts at stabilization and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan have long been eclipsed by developments in Iraq since 2003. As a result, the resurgent Taliban is increasingly spreading its tentacles of influence. By targeting development and aid workers, they are impeding reconstruction and at the same time creating fear in the minds of Afghans. A report released by the Council on Foreign Relations provided a grim picture of Afghanistan's security as a country "challenged by a terrorist insurgency that has become more lethal and effective and that has bases in Pakistan, a drug trade that dominates the economy and corrupts the state, and pervasive poverty and insecurity." In the year 2005, about 1,600 people, including 91 US troops, were killed - almost double the total number in 2004. The trend in Afghanistan points to "Iraqisation of Afghanistan," with suicide attacks, a technique alien to Afghan culture, on the rise. Taliban-induced violence is expected to rise this summer as the British-led NATO force gradually takes over control from American troops in the south.

    The resurgence of the Taliban is seen especially in areas that share a border with Pakistan. A May 3, 2006 report in the New York Times portrays a grim security situation in Afghanistan, indicating an increase in Taliban activity in provinces like Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni and Paktika. Zabul province, from where the Taliban cross into Afghanistan via Pachena and Anganay from neighbouring Quetta in Pakistan, is the main route of their movement to the southern provinces. Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul province, is headed by the Taliban commander Mullah Assadullah. Zabul also elected Mulla Abdul Salaam Rocketi, an ex-Taliban commander, to the Afghan Parliament in September 2005. Likewise, other districts headed by former Taliban are: Dai Chopan district (Mullah Dadullah), Atghar district (Mullah Razaq), Khake Afghan district (Mullah Qahar), Arghandab and Mizan (Amir Khan Haqqani). Due to the support and sanctuary offered by Pakistan to the Taliban, President Karzai has little choice but to accommodate the "moderate Taliban" into the political mainstream through the "Reconciliation Process" and thereby maintain some measure of influence over them. Karzai, during his recent visit to Pakistan in February 2006, provided President Pervez Musharraf with evidence of Islamabad's continued patronage of the Taliban.

    The increasing Indian presence in reconstruction activity (1,500 to 2,500 workers) has, however, irked Pakistan and its Afghan protégés. Pakistan has raised objections to India opening consulates in Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar and is also opposed to India's deployment of paramilitary forces in Afghanistan along areas close to its borders. With instability challenging Islamabad's authority in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan has concerns about "Pushtun nationalism" raising its head. In its second annual "failed states" index, Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace have categorised Pakistan as "another troubled country," which has plunged from 34th on a list of failed states in 2005 to the ninth slot this year (lower than Afghanistan, which ranks 10th in a list of 60 most vulnerable States). Pakistan's inability to quell insurgency in the Pakistan-Afghan border and internal discord are major factors that have led to Pakistan's high score on the Failed States Index.

    The recent killing of the Indian engineer as well as similar incidents in the past can also be seen in the context of India's growing and favourable profile in Afghanistan. India, the largest regional donor to Afghanistan, has in the last four years pledged $650 million in a slew of projects. Apart from supplying skilled manpower, constructing roads, hospitals, power transmission lines, the Afghan parliament and other government buildings, the nature of the Indian engagement is broad-based spanning diverse sectors including economy, education, technology, infrastructure, health, education, agriculture, industry, telecommunications, information and broadcasting. During President Karzai's visit to India in April 2006 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's earlier visit to Afghanistan in August 2005, the two countries decided to strengthen cooperation in economic development and in fighting terrorism. India's engagement with Afghanistan is vital for its ongoing battle against terrorism and curtailing the influence of terror outfits in Jammu and Kashmir - Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, which derive moral and material support from the trans-border Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus.

    In developing a balanced policy response, India should unmistakably signal that there would be no downsizing of the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Any policy movement in that direction would be seen as a victory for the Taliban and could encourage them to indulge in further intimidation. Apart from revamping the security arrangements and sending in more paramilitary forces, India can look towards significantly expanding its assistance in the training and arming of Kabul's security forces, including the Afghan National Army and police. While maintaining its policy of not yielding to the demands of hostage takers, New Delhi needs to strengthen its capacity for information collection, risk assessment and crisis management to deal effectively with similar such crises that could well arise in future. As an important power in the region, India needs to play a key role in the reconstruction and stability in Afghanistan and also in preventing that country from remerging as a "playing ground" for regional powers and their proxies.