The conflict in Afghanistan has come closer to home. A bloody war, which is hardly even noticed by most Indians, nevertheless came into living rooms as the media confirmed that seven Indians and their Afghan driver were abducted – as against kidnapped – in the remote northern province of Baghlan as they were going to work near the capital of Pul-e Khumri.
The Indian engineers were part of a group undertaking a power project in the area, and as of now, there is no confirmation of any particular group having abducted the Indians. It will become an official 'kidnapping' once these details are known and a ransom amount or demand made. These are the finer details that are will ultimately decide their fate.
First, the news about Baghlan is not good. Recent news reports indicate that the Taliban are going full throttle in the province following the announcement of its spring offensive 'Al Khandak'. The Taliban news site Almerah reports a series of apparent victories in the area, including the killing of a senior Afghan army officer.
A video released on 25 April, 2018, shows training of its cadres in the 'Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour Camp' in the province. The camp is named after the Taliban leader who was picked off by air attacks well inside Pakistan in Baluchistan in May 2016.
The video shows Taliban cadres moving freely around a town and even stopping traffic to allow its formations to pass through. Available reportage from other sources indicates that the Taliban are well entrenched in the area, including in parts of Pul-e Khumri, the capital of the province.
Second, Afghan media reported the arrest of a prominent Taliban leader Qari Bakhtiar just outside the capital. Bakhtiar was described as 'in-charge of organising roadside bombings and targeting security personnel' in the northern Baghlan province.
A day earlier, an Afghan news source quoting the National Directorate of Security (NDS) said that Tariq, son of Bakhtiar, described as the Taliban's deputy shadow governor and his two friends, Obaidullah and Faisal, were detained during a raid in Pul-e Khumri. If Bakhtiar is, in fact, a deputy Shadow governor as claimed, then the Taliban leadership will stop at nothing to get him released. That's bad news.
Third, the Taliban have been recently attacking power projects in the area. Pul-e Khumri is an important transmission point for the lines that go to power Kabul. India had earlier donated a power transmission line and substation at Chimtala. The KEC seems to have been involved in a later contract for a similar project secured through DABS (Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat) which is the concerned Afghan agency.
The whole project is vital for plans to bring in power from Uzbekistan into the Pul-e Khumri power grid, through a project funded by the Asian Development Bank. Kabul is starved of electricity, and the Taliban think it's a good idea to hold the city hostage by blowing up power lines. That's precisely what they've been doing last week. But here's the odd thing.
They're doing all of this as part of urging DABS to complete welfare projects in Baghlan first. In short, the Taliban can either project themselves as champions of the people in the area, or they can let the Indians go free to complete the project on time. They can't do both. That's some good news.
Reports suggest that the Afghans are using tribal elders to negotiate a release of the Indians. There is also an intriguing statement that the whole operation was a "mistake" since the Taliban (or whoever) mistook them for government officials.
Abductions are common in Afghanistan, with this happening either with an eye on ransom or as part of revenge against a particular group or country. The United Nations has had its aid workers targeted with 149 abducted in 2017, marking a six percent increase.
Indians are, however, rarely abducted probably because there are so few in the country, outside of those engaged in specific activity related to the Indian government.
In June 2016, Judith D'Souza who worked with the Aga Khan Foundation was abducted, but released safely, after a month of captivity. Her abductors were freewheeling criminals with no links to the Taliban. It was an entirely different story when in 2005, a driver with the Border Roads Organisation was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban.
Three months later, another Indian, K Suryanarayana, who was engaged in a telecom project with a Bahrain company was similarly killed. But that was entirely linked to the then Taliban demand that all Indians leave Afghanistan. In 2005, that demand came from a Taliban that was heavily dependant on Pakistan for everything and anything across the board.
That is no longer the case. There are others who are also assisting the Taliban, particularly in the north. In Baghlan, there is no reason for the Taliban to target Indians specifically, nor to undercut the power project which has the full support of locals.
There is always the possibility that matters may change if instructions are received from their masters in Pakistan. Hopefully, that will not happen. Every electronic ear belonging to every intelligence agency is tuned in that direction. What the ears can perceive can quickly become public knowledge. Hopefully, Rawalpindi is well aware that Pakistan is not anyone's favourite country at the moment.
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Updated Date: May 07, 2018 19:22:57 IST