India's presence in Afghanistan: What it means for Pakistan

The News, June 8, 2006
India's presence in Afghanistan
Rahimullah Yusufzai

The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar

The recent abduction and beheading of Indian telecommunication engineer K Suryanarayana in Afghanistan has highlighted the brutal nature of the Afghan conflict. It also showed the violent Taliban opposition to India due to the latter's support for President Hamid Karzai's government and the presence of US-led foreign forces in the war-ravaged country.

Aware of Pakistan's concern over growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, it was obvious that India would soon cry foul and find a Pakistani hand in Suryanayarana's abduction and beheading in Zabul province. Before long, the Indian media had seized on an unsubstantiated story by the private Afghan TV channel, Tolo, to claim Pakistan Army's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in Suryanarayana's murder. For the second time in the recent past, Tolo had interviewed a turbaned Afghan after introducing him as a Taliban spokesman and prompted him to declare that the ISI had overruled Taliban objections and ordered the execution of the kidnapped Indian engineer. The Taliban promptly denied that any of their three spokesmen had granted an interview to the channel and termed the man who was interviewed as an impostor.

The incident showed the limits of the propaganda war waged by adversaries wanting to harm each other. Until now, India saw Pakistani involvement in every act of terror on its soil and in Jammu & Kashmir. Now it has added Afghanistan to the list. Islamabad, on the other hand, is convinced that India has ganged up with anti-Pakistan elements in the Afghan government to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for subversive activities in Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan and Waziristan.

It was intriguing that engineer Suryanarayana was driving on the newly-built highway from Kabul to Kandahar via Zabul with no security guards. Only his Afghan driver gave him company in one of the most dangerous stretches of territory in Afghanistan. One misstep in Taliban stronghold of Zabul and the chances are that a foreigner, or even an Afghan supporter of President Karzai, would be kidnapped or killed. There have been scores of such incidents and the southern province remains the hotbed of insurgency despite a number of security operations by the US-led coalition forces and the Afghan National Army.

Taliban gunmen waiting in ambush spotted their prey and intercepted the vehicle carrying the Indian and Afghan nationals. It is possible that the two had been followed or intelligence was passed on to the waiting Taliban about them. Taliban fighters and sympathisers are everywhere from Kabul to Ghazni and Zabul and onwards in Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, Farah and Herat. Realising the threat, the US has finally prevailed on Nato to provide more than 6,000 troops to cope with the increased Taliban attacks, make the area secure, and extend the writ of the embattled Afghan government. Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have reluctantly agreed to make available the extra soldiers for deployment in Kandahar, Urozgan and Helmand provinces.

Suryanayarana was seized and abducted near Hasan Karez village in Zabul's Shahjui district. Shahjui is the hometown of newly elected member of parliament Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former mujahideen and Taliban military commander who is one of the few Taliban leaders to have defected the movement and announced support for President Hamid Karzai's government. Even Rocketi, who got his name due to his expertise in firing RPG-7 rockets and destroying tanks and armoured vehicle carriers, couldn't do anything to prevent the abduction and killing of the Indian engineer. Such is the fear of the Taliban in these parts that nobody wants to risk his life by taking them on.

According to the Taliban, Suryanarayana was killed while trying to escape. He was beheaded. The Taliban first denied and later admitted that their fighters beheaded him in a fit of anger. His body was found not far from where he was abducted in the same Hasan Karez area. It meant that he was kept nearby. This proved that the claims by Afghan government authorities including the Zabul Governor that a big security operation had been launched to sweep the area and recover the two kidnapped men were just lies. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, no real effort had gone into establishing contact with the Taliban.

No doubt this time the Indian government had shown urgency compared with its slow reaction in similar situations in the past. Its ministry of external affairs had expressed its willingness to negotiate the release of Suryanarayana on humanitarian grounds and rushed a three-member delegation for the purpose to Afghanistan. Though no headway had been made for establishing contact with the Taliban, there was hope that something good would come out of the effort by using tribal elders in Zabul as intermediaries or requesting independent persons familiar with Taliban to negotiate the terms for securing Suryanarayana's freedom. Unlike the previous occasions when India left it to the Afghan government to secure the release of its kidnapped nationals, this time New Delhi was determined to explore every means to save the Indian engineer's life. However, all these efforts proved inadequate in the end when Suryanarayana was killed before the Taliban deadline.

In return for Suryanarayana's release, the Taliban wanted an Indian government announcement to close down its embassy in Kabul and consulates in a number of provincial capitals, pullout of all Indians working in Afghanistan and stoppage of work on projects undertaken by Indian firms. A 24-hour deadline was also given along with the threat that failure to accept the demands would result in Suryanarayana's killing. The demands were far too many and the deadline was impossible to meet.

A dead Suryanarayana, who belonged to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, was of no use to the Taliban, who were hoping to win acceptance of one or two of their demands had the Indian engineer been alive. Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran termed it a premeditated killing that took place even before the arrival of his country's negotiating team in Kabul. Terming the Taliban demand that all Indians leave Afghanistan within 24 hours as outrageous, he argued that it testified to the real motivation behind the act of terror. His reference to the sponsors of the Taliban was taken as a veiled reference to Pakistan, which was one of their biggest supporters prior to 9/11. Although Pakistan has distanced itself from the Taliban and has captured and delivered a number of their leaders and fighters to the US and Afghanistan, it continues to attract flak on account of its past policies. Islamabad's public concern over the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and its allegation that New Delhi was using its embassies and consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad to fuel insurgency in Balochistan and Waziristan is nowadays mentioned as evidence that Pakistan would be happy if the Indians were forced to pack up and leave.

Suryanarayana's death earned a bad name for the Taliban and contributed to their reputation of being an extremist and ultra-conservative group given to violent ways. Six months ago in November 2005, they had kidnapped and killed another Indian national, Maniappan Raman Kutty, who worked as a driver in the southwestern Nimruz province with the Border Roads Organisation on the Indian-funded Delaram-Zaranj road linking southwestern Afghanistan with the Iranian seaport Chahbahar. On that occasion, the Taliban had complained that nobody in the Indian or Afghan government contacted them for his release and, therefore, were forced to kill him on the expiry of quite a few deadlines. Twice before that, the Taliban had abducted Indian workers and freed them after reportedly striking a deal with the Afghan government to secure release of Taliban fighters held by Kabul.

With the Taliban attacks on the rise, there is every possibility of further abductions of Indian workers in Afghanistan. India has sought the Afghan government's permission to deploy a contingent of Central Reserve Police Force in Afghanistan to protect the 2,500 Indians working on reconstruction and development projects mostly funded by New Delhi. Then there are Indians who like Suryanarayana are employed by the Bahrain-based al-Muet company, working with non-Indian firms. There are already 200 personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police providing security to Indians working on India-aided projects in Afghanistan. Careful of Pakistani sensitivities and eager not to look weak, the Karzai government has until now delayed decision on the Indian request. Islamabad would not approve of the move, more so on account of reports in the Pakistani press that India would be deploying army commandoes near Pakistan's borders in Afghanistan.

It is obvious that the issue is complex and fraught with risks. Many Afghans say India and Pakistan were fighting a proxy war in their war-ravaged country. Supporters of the Karzai government don't like Pakistani criticism of their warm relations with India. The Taliban, on the other hand, consider India an enemy for supporting and strengthening the Afghan government and backing the presence of US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan would be happy if the Taliban continue to harass the Indians in Afghanistan though it doesn't want and cannot oppose the Karzai government due to American pressure. The US and Nato troops want to stay in Afghanistan for several years and their presence has fuelled fierce resistance by Islamic militant groups ranging from al-Qaeda to Taliban to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami. In the circumstances, we should expect more such incidents that would destabilise an already unstable region.