January 24, 2021
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The Cat's Paw In Nimroz

Pakistan's covert assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and its efforts to recover 'strategic depth' in that country through this proxy, will inevitably continue, though its scale may be calibrated to ensure that it does not provoke US ire and re

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The Cat's Paw In Nimroz
The Cat's Paw In Nimroz
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Two Indian nationals, M.P. Singh and C. Govindaswamy, personnel of the Indian Army's Border Roads Organisation (BRO), were killed and seven persons, including five BRO personnel, sustained injuries in a suicide-bomber attack in the southwest province of Nimroz in Afghanistan on April 12, 2008. The BRO team was working on a highway project, when the vehicle-borne suicide bomber struck, the ministry of external affairs spokesperson disclosed at New Delhi. An unconfirmed report from Herat in Afghanistan indicated that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack.

Since 2002, the Taliban has demanded the departure of all Indian personnel working on various projects with the Afghan people and government for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country. The Taliban and al Qaeda have targeted Indians in Afghanistan before. In the first-ever suicide attack on Indians in the country, two Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) soldiers were killed and five others injured in the Razai village of Nimroz province on January 3, 2008. 

In April 2006, Indian national, K. Suryanarayana, working with a Gulf-based company, was abducted and later killed by Taliban militants, allegedly on orders from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Earlier, Ramankutty Maniyappan, a 36-year old BRO employee, was abducted on November 19, 2005, and his decapitated body was found on a road between Zaranj, capital of Nimroz, and an area called Ghor Ghori, four days later. Following his abduction, Taliban spokesperson Qari Yusuf Ahmadi had claimed that they had given the BRO an ultimatum to leave Afghanistan within 48 hours, failing which they would behead Maniyappan.

There are approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals working on several reconstruction projects across Afghanistan. The principal projects include, among others:

  • Construction of a 220 KV Double Circuit Transmission Line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 KV sub-station at Kabul under the North-East Power System project to bring power from neighbouring countries to Kabul (USD 111 million);
  • Humanitarian food assistance of one million tons of wheat in the form of high protein biscuits distributed to 1.4 million schoolchildren every day under the School Feeding Programme, administered through the World Food Programme (USD 100 million);
  • Construction of a 218 kilometre road from Zaranj to Delaram to facilitate movement of goods and commodities from Afghanistan to Iranian border (USD 175 million--approval for an additional USD 91 million is being sought);
  • Reconstruction and completion of Salma Dam Power Project (42 MW) in Herat province (USD 116 million--approval for additional USD 36 million is being sought);
  • Construction of Afghan Parliament (USD 83 million);
  • Reconstruction of Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul in various phases, including reconstruction of surgical ward/polyclinic/diagnostic centre (USD 6.7 million);
  • Reconstruction of Habibia School (USD 5.1 million);
  • Digging of 26 tube wells in North West Afghanistan (USD 1.2 million);
  • Gifting of vehicles (400 buses, 200 mini-buses, 105 municipality and 285 army vehicles) (USD 25 million);
  • Setting up of 5 toilet-cum-public sanitation complexes in Kabul (USD 0.9 million);
  • Telephone exchanges in 11 provinces connecting to Kabul (USD 11.1 million);
  • Expansion of National TV network by providing an uplink from Kabul and downlinks in all 34 provincial capitals, contributing towards greater integration of the country (USD 6.8 million).

The present level of India's assistance to Afghanistan is USD 750 million, making it the 5th largest bilateral donor after the US, UK, Japan and Germany. According to the Indian Embassy at Kabul, of the total pledge of USD 750 million between 2002 and 2009, the fully committed amount is USD 758.21 million and cumulative disbursement up to 2006-07 has been US $ 278.94 million. This is higher than the disbursement rates of most other countries. The budgetary estimate for 2007-08 is US $ 105.04 million.

There are an estimated 400 Indians working on the strategic 218-kilometre road in southwestern Afghanistan, which will link the main Kandahar-Herat highway to the Iran border, where the April 12 suicide attack occurred. Along with local Afghans, an ITBP contingent provides protection to the Indians working on the road project, which has immense strategic significance for Afghanistan. A November 2007 report in The Hindu indicated nearly 10 previous attacks on BRO personnel had forced India to increase the strength of the ITBP contingent from 38 to 388 on this road project.

This ambitious project, funded and executed by India, will provide Afghanistan a shorter route to the sea, via the Iranian port of Chabahar, than is currently available through Pakistan. Iran, India and Afghanistan had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in January 2003, to improve Afghanistan's access to the coast. Under this agreement, Iran is building a new transit route to connect Milak in the southeast of the country to Zaranj in Afghanistan, and has already completed an important bridge over the Helmand River. 

On its part, India is building a new road connecting Zaranj to Delaram, which is on the main Herat-Kandahar road. The road is expected to become operational by December 2008, a full year behind schedule. These projects will shorten the transit distance between Chabahar and Delaram by over 600 kilometres. According to the MoU, Afghan goods will have duty-free access to the Iranian port and the trade from Afghanistan will have to pay no more than what is applied to Iranian traders for using Iranian territory for transit purposes. India is to enjoy similar benefits as Afghanistan at Chabahar port and for transit.

Furthermore, India and Iran have also agreed to build a railroad from Chabahar to the Iranian Central Railway Station, thus creating a link to the Karachi-Tehran Railway line, which goes further westwards. While Afghanistan gains superior access to realize its trade potential, India will be able to prevail over hurdles posed by Pakistan in refusing to allow the transit of Indian goods en route to Afghanistan. Furthermore, India would be able to obtain quicker access to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

The Zaranj-Delaram project, consequently, has direct ramifications for the three participating countries, and impacts on Pakistan by default. Afghanistan, the host country that is still a long way away from recovery, continues to be a playground for competing foreign policy agendas and the 'new great game' that is evidently being played out on its soil.

The Taliban detests India's proximity with the Hamid Karzai regime and leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. The Taliban/al Qaeda combine and the transnational jihadi groups headquartered in Pakistan have consequently and continuously targeted Indian nationals and interests since India began reconstruction operations in Afghanistan, particularly in southern Afghanistan and in the Herat area bordering Iran. 

Reconstruction efforts and the unfortunate consequence of violence play out amidst the reality of the limited control exercised by the Hamid Karzai government over southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban, al Qaeda and an assortment of tribal elders and warlords, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have de facto control over this region, and some of these entities either operate from their safe sanctuaries within Pakistan or directly secure support from the establishment in Islamabad.

The attack against the Indian workers in Nimroz comes within the context of spiraling violence in the country. Afghanistan, arguably the 'forgotten frontier' of the Global War on Terror, witnessed a substantial increase in violence during 2007, which claimed at least 8,000 lives, the highest death toll for any year since 2001. Armed conflicts between the Taliban, on the one hand, and Afghan and international forces, on the other, left over at least 1,500 civilians dead, according to a UN report in March 2008. 

Insurgency-related violence "reached unprecedented levels in 2007 with an average of 566 incidents recorded per month, and 160 'actual suicide attacks' throughout the year", according to the report. Writing in the March 2008 Report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, further, "The Taliban and related armed groups and the drug economy represent fundamental threats to still fragile political, economic and social institutions… Despite tactical successes by national and international military forces, the anti-government elements are far from defeated". 

Afghanistan's recovery from the forces of radical Islam is expected to be a long haul, much more than what was imagined even in 2007. Major General David Rodriguez, head of the US-led coalition force, indicated, in February 2008, that it will take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. Reports indicate that "questions are increasingly being asked concerning the viability and prospects for the ultimate success of the 40-nation ISAF and parallel US military deployments."

Dan Rath, director of communications and advocacy at Kabul's Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, emphasized further that, within a troubled nation, the situation in south Afghanistan "is by far the most difficult." In a statement released on April 8, 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that insurgent attacks were spreading to areas in the country's east and west, which were previously relatively stable, forcing 13,000 to flee their homes, just since January 2008. 

The US National Intelligence Director, Michael McConnell, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2008 that the "resurgent Taliban controls 10 percent to 11 percent of the country and Karzai's government controls 30 percent to 31 percent. The majority of Afghanistan's population and territory remains under local tribal control." Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, told the committee at the same hearing that "Pakistani military operations in the (region) have not fundamentally damaged al-Qaida's position. ... The tribal areas remain largely ungovernable and, as such, they will continue to provide vital sanctuary to al-Qaida, the Taliban and regional extremism more broadly."

Meanwhile, the Taliban has announced the beginning of a new offensive in Afghanistan, threatening "painful strikes" on enemy soldiers. Mullah Bradar Akhund, 'deputy emir' of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, on March 27, 2008, stated that the Taliban would launch "new types of operations" across Afghanistan.

The dangers of anarchy across wide areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border go well beyond the confines of the region, and are seen to be sourced in Pakistan to a far greater extent than in the debilitated state of Afghanistan. An April 14, 2008, report indicated that US President George W Bush had stated, in a Television interview, that "if another September 11 style attack is being planned, it probably is being plotted in Pakistan and not Afghanistan." President Bush expressed the opinion that, if the plotters had been located in Afghanistan, they would have been "routed out" by the US-NATO forces by now. He described the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, as one of the most dangerous areas in the world today, where "Al Qaeda has established safe havens and is plotting attacks against the United States."

The Taliban have regrouped rather well, although they may still be incapable of sustaining an Iraq-type insurgency. This is particularly the case in the Afghan countryside, especially in provinces dominated by the Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Islamabad has evidently allowed the Taliban to regroup on Pakistani territory and to launch attacks across the border. Despite selective military operations, there is no indication that Pakistan is about to cut the Taliban's lifeline on its soil.

Despite the steadily worsening situation in Afghanistan and the direct attacks against Indian projects and workers, there is no indication that India intends to dilute its presence or commitment to projects in Afghanistan. Indeed, there are strong efforts to further consolidate India-Afghanistan relations beyond the present commitment, which is primarily related to reconstruction and development efforts. There is, for instance, a proposal for the Indian Army to train the Afghan National Army in counter-insurgency operations. 

Afghanistan's defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak met with his Indian counterpart A. K. Antony in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on April 10, 2008, to discuss bilateral military cooperation, including the counter-insurgency assistance. While India would remain "actively engaged" in the reconstruction exercise in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, the next step of military cooperation would unambiguously threaten Pakistan's attempts to secure dominance and recover strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Though Pakistan is currently wracked by multiple internal convulsions that have, in some measure, undermined its capacities of power projection into Afghanistan, it remains the case that it shares strategic goals with the Taliban in this theatre. The Taliban and the transnational jihadi groups headquartered in Pakistan's tribal areas remain the principal instrumentalities of Islamabad's response to India's deepening co-operation with Afghanistan--notwithstanding evidence of some radical Islamist activity now being redirected towards Islamabad. 

Pakistan's prospective strategies envisage an augmented share of power for the Taliban at Kabul, in the proximate future, and a return to the status quo ante of a Taliban regime, in the medium term. Preventing the stabilization of the Karzai is an integral element of this broad strategic vision. This orientation is also seen to constitute an existential imperative for Islamabad, since a strong and stable regime at Kabul would immediately put the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan into question, and further destabilize North Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). 

Pakistan's covert assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and its efforts to recover 'strategic depth' in that country through this proxy, will inevitably continue, though its scale may be calibrated to ensure that it does not provoke US ire and reprisals.


Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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