The abduction of seven Indians in Afghanistan has raised two questions. One relates to the incident itself and the second on what it signifies in terms of the drift of events in that country and its implications for India
The abduction of seven Indian engineers and their Afghan driver in Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province on Sunday, May 6, raises two sets of questions. The first relates to the incident itself and the second, what it signifies in terms of the drift of events in that country and its implications for India. According to some reports, the Taliban carried out the abductions under the mistaken impression that the victims were employees of the Afghan Government. They, it was further reported, had said that those abducted would be returned soon.
They have not been returned till the time of writing and, according to reports, are being held in the Taliban-controlled village of Dand-i-Sahabuddin in the outskirts of the town Pul-i-Khumri in Baghlan. A clue to unravelling whether the abduction was actually a mistake perhaps lies in the fact that the engineers were travelling without armed escort because both local contractors and the Taliban had assured that they would not be harmed. This suggests that the Taliban knew that they would be travelling and, hence, could not have mistaken them for Government employees. In any case, it is not frightfully difficult to distinguish Indians from Afghans working for their Government.
On what basis did the local contractors, who also said that the Taliban would not attack the engineers, form their opinion? If it was trust in the Taliban’s assurance, then it was, to put it mildly, an unbelievable act of naivete. Baghlan Province was on the verge of falling to the Taliban who had been launching furious assaults in several areas as part of their spring offensive, Al Khandak. Besides, they are known to be prepared to do anything to get Al Bakhtiyar, one of their foremost leaders in the Province whom the Government forces have taken prisoner, released. This also means that even if the abduction of seven Indians was a mistake, it is quite on the cards that they may now seek to exchange them in lieu of Al Bakhtiyar.
As could be expected, the role of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has come under scrutiny. Was it behind the incident if the latter was not an accident? If not, is it, post-abduction, trying to fish in troubled waters and, as has been reported, pressing the Taliban to delay the return of the engineers? The answer is likely to be in the positive, as such a gambit would fit smoothly into its design of reversing the spread of India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Denying India space in Afghanistan would require a Government there which is a creature of Pakistan and not one that is independent of it and friendly toward New Delhi. It is well-known that Pakistan wants such a Government partly because of its pathological hatred for India, which is a major driving force behind its foreign and military policies, and partly a result of its desire for using Afghanistan to gain what it calls strategic depth against India. The abduction and prolonged detention of the seven Indians, one can reasonably argue, could well have been a part of implementing this wider design.
It would frighten off power companies like the KEC, an Indian outfit for which the abductees worked and which, along with other Indian companies active in the area, is playing a key role in Afghanistan’s power front, where New Delhi’s contribution is greatly appreciated by the people. In Pakistan’s calculation, a continued proliferation of such attacks, may lead, to start with, India’s exit from the power front, and, eventually, to a freezing of all of New Delhi’s developmental activities in the country. This may halt the expansion of India’s popularity and then put it in the reverse gear.
India can hardly be indifferent to Pakistan’s skullduggery given its historic ties with Afghanistan, which have been deepened and reinforced by the close ties developed in recent years. It has already poured $2 billion dollar and it is committed to invest $1 billion more. It signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan in 2011; has been providing assistance to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutions and education and technical assistance to re-build indigenous Afghan capacity in different areas. It has been encouraging investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources, providing duty free access to the Indian market for Afghanistan’s exports, supporting an Afghan-led broad-based and inclusive process of peace and reconciliation, and advocating the need for a sustained and long-term commitment to Afghanistan by the international community.
All this would be in jeopardy if Afghanistan has a Government controlled by Islamabad. What can be done to prevent it from coming to power? One cannot expect the Afghans to do it. Despite occasional successes, the Government’s Armed Forces have not been able withstand the Taliban’s offensives at most places. Apart from being heavily outnumbered in some places, they have been severely handicapped by poor leadership and inadequate training, weapons and equipment. They have virtually no heavy weaponry and the apology of an air force. Unless the insufficiencies in each of these areas are addressed, one cannot rule out the possibility of the Afghan forces going under.
Critically important, therefore, will be the United States’ role, particularly that of its military. There are 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan now and President Trump has indicated that he would give Pentagon the authority to add several thousand more troops, give the generals more autonomy to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan and the objective was winning and not nation-building. He has also been scathing in his criticism of Pakistan’s duplicitous role of clandestinely supporting some terrorist groups while claiming to fight terrorism.
Unfortunately, things have not changed significantly on the ground and, given Trump’s new pre-occupations with Iran and North Korea and the growing criticism of his conduct and policies at home, one wonders whether they will. On the other hand, both China and Russia are beginning to take a hand in Afghanistan in cooperation with Pakistan. The question is: Where does all this leave India?
India cannot bank on the United States given Trump’s pre-occupations and the lack of consistency and resolution — swinging from an avowal of its determination to rout the Taliban to talking about withdrawal — that has characterised American policies in Afghanistan so far. As of now, the other option of teaming up with Russia and China does not seem likely to be realised soon if India follows the kind of route it has been following. It has to make Russia and China realise that it needed to be taken on board. For this, it must show its willingness to support the Kabul regime not only with investments and financial and technological aid but military support. It has so far provided it with four attack helicopters and training for its military personnel. It must now consider giving it heavy artillery and combat aircraft and tanks being phased out by the IAF but good enough for strafing the Taliban. It may not even have to actually do so. The very announcement that it would, may take Beijing and Moscow take serious note of its concerns.