Ramankutty Maniyappan, a 36-year-old from the southern Indian state of Kerala and an employee of the Indian Border Roads Organization (BRO), was abducted November 19. His beheaded body was found four days later on a road between Zaranj, the capital of the Nimroz province, and an area called Ghor Ghori. Following his abduction, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, had claimed that the group had given the BRO an ultimatum to leave Afghanistan within 48 hours, failing which they would behead Maniyappan.
Maniyappan was among an estimated 300 Indians working on the strategic 218-kilometer road in southwestern Afghanistan, which will link the main Kandahar-Herat highway to the Iran border. The US$84 million 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. These projects will shorten the transit distance between Chabahar and Delaram by more than 600 kilometers. According to the MoU, Afghan goods will have duty-free access to the Iranian port and will have to pay not more than what is applied to Iranian traders for using its 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 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.
The project, consequently, has direct ramifications for three countries, and impacts on Pakistan by default. Afghanistan, the host country that is still a long way away from recovery, continues as a playground for competing foreign policy agendas and a "new great game" is evidently being played out on its soil.
Apart from the BRO-executed project, some 2,000 Indians are involved in a diverse array of reconstruction projects, prominently including the building of a 220 KV double circuit transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri in eastern Afghanistan to Kabul ($111 million); a sub-station at Kabul; the reconstruction of the Salma dam power project in Herat province ($80 million) being executed by the Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd.
India is also assisting in the reconstruction of the Habibia school, which boasts alumni such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former king, Zahir Shah. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the school during his visit to Kabul in August. India has pledged $550 million to the reconstruction of Afghanistan in sectors that include basic infrastructure, health, education, agriculture, industry, telecommunication, information and broadcasting.
The Maniyappan incident is not the first of its kind involving the abduction of an Indian in Afghanistan by the Taliban. In 2003, two Indians, Murali and Varada Rao, working for a private construction company, were abducted in Zabul province and subsequently released after 19 days in captivity.
The Taliban detests India's proximity with the Karzai regime and leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. On November 19, the day Maniyappan was abducted, India had announced that it was awarding the prestigious Indira Gandhi Peace Prize for 2005 to Karzai, a gesture intended to convey India's commitment to Afghanistan. Indian firms involved in the reconstruction effort, including the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd, C&C Constructions and WAPCOS, have, despite the Maniyappan murder, ruled out any scaling down of activity in Afghanistan.
These projects, however, do not affect Pakistani ambitions to the degree that the building of the Zaranj-Delaram road would. Although India's External Affairs Ministry, in a statement from New Delhi, stated that "The Taliban and its backers bear the responsibility for the consequences of this outrageous act", an unnamed Afghan government official was more unqualified in his confirmation of the Pakistani role in the killing of the BRO worker: "It was not to Pakistan's liking that India was helping to construct this road [the Zaranj-Delaram highway]. Obviously, they would try to disrupt the project." Subsequently, on November 27, India's National Security Adviser, M K Narayanan also asserted that Pakistan had a role in Maniyappan's killing, and had conspired with the Taliban to engineer this "ill-motivated act".
Afghanistan, increasingly the "forgotten frontier" of the "war on terror", has witnessed a substantial increase in violence during 2005, claiming at least 1,500 lives, including 84 American troops, the highest toll since 2001. Last year, the death toll was about 850.
Aid workers are an obvious target in Afghanistan. According to the Afghanistan non-governmental organization (NGO) Safety Organization, 30 people involved in aid projects have died in 2005, as compared to 24 the previous year. Worse, three suicide attacks in November indicated a shift towards "Iraq-style tactics" by the Taliban.
Close to nine such attacks have taken place nationwide since September 28, when a uniformed man on a motorcycle detonated a bomb outside an Afghan Army Training Center, killing nine persons. Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi confirmed such a shift in strategy: "It is true that we have started a series of suicide attacks mainly against foreign troops who have invaded Afghanistan." Expressing surprise at the turn of events, a senior UN official said, "We never imagined we would still be talking about a Taliban insurgency four years on."
The US, which has conferred "frontline state" eminence on Islamabad, has a strange take on the Pakistani strategy. The Report on the Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations, published by the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, unequivocally stated:
... challenges facing the country [Afghanistan] are still formidable: Taliban and other extremist forces stepped up attacks against the Karzai government in spring and summer of 2005, and attacks continue; new fighters are being drawn from Pakistan. More than sixty US military personnel have died in combat in 2005 and the insurgency is not going away. Karzai has not extended his authority throughout the entire country.
[President General Pervez] Musharraf does not appear to have lived up to his promises to regulate the madrassas [seminaries] properly or close down all those that are known to have links to extremist groups. Taliban forces still pass freely across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and operate in Pakistani tribal areas. Terrorists from Pakistan carry out operations in Kashmir ...
At the other end, there are reports that Americans are attempting, assisted, not surprisingly, by Pakistan, to accommodate the Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar within the power structure in Afghanistan. Islamabad, on its part, is interested in ensuring the Taliban's representation in the future governance of Afghanistan in order to reframe its quest for "strategic depth".
Afghanistan has consistently expressed concern over Islamabad's continuing attempts to interfere in and regain control over events in the country. The head of Afghanistan's reconciliation commission, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, told reporters in Kabul on November 12:
We have not seen any direct military interference except from our Pakistani brothers ... I don't know why they have not stopped their inhumane interference in Afghanistan so far ... Pakistan or its ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] have given them [militants] plans to implement in Afghanistan, have provided them with weapons and facilities and warned them if they do not do it [execute terrorist operations in Afghanistan] they will be handed over to Americans as al-Qaeda activists.
Back in Pakistan, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a stalwart of the Islamist movement and one of the most prominent patrons of the Taliban, confirmed in an interview to Adnkronos International on November 24 that it was "a fact that the Taliban are Afghan nationals and they are still studying in Pakistani madrassas".
And for the seminaries that spawn the Taliban it is "business as usual". Musharraf's campaign to get madrassas registered by December has, by all accounts, fizzled out due to a "lack of cooperation" from the apex bodies of religious schools. The Wafaq-ul-Madaris, Pakistan's main confederacy of seminaries, which runs approximately 8,200 institutions, has refused to follow the Madaris Registration Ordinance 2005, along with two other bodies -- the Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Deeniya and the Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Ahle Sunnat -- saying the process was intended to curb the "independence and sovereignty" of the madrassas.
There have been a series of high-profile arrests and incidents that indicate that the Taliban continue to maintain a vibrant presence in Pakistani territory, especially in the provinces of Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Pakistani authorities have fitfully and selectively acted against some Taliban elements from time to time, though there are continuous reports of very substantial freedom of movement and activity granted to the main body of the force and its leadership.
Mullah Abdul Mannan Hanafi and Mullah Mohammad Akbar, former Taliban provincial governors and military commanders, for instance, were shot dead by "unidentified assailants" in Peshawar on November 8. Incidentally, Hanafi was the "military commander" in Bamiyan when the Taliban demolished the two Buddha statues there.
After the Taliban defeat, Hanafi was arrested in Balochistan by Pakistani authorities and detained for a few months, but was eventually set free due to "lack of evidence" of his involvement in terrorist activity. Earlier, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister, informed the media on October 4, in Quetta, capital of Balochistan, that they had arrested Abdul Latif Hakimi, Taliban's chief spokesperson, and five others, from the province.
Hakimi was in regular contact with the media, speaking by satellite telephone from undisclosed locations and often made claims of inflicting huge casualties on US and Afghan troops. In June, when an MH-47 helicopter was shot down in the Kunar province bordering Pakistan, killing all 16 US troops on board, Hakimi claimed the incident even before US or Afghan officials acknowledged it. While some of his claims have been fanciful, there was no doubt that Hakimi was aware of several Taliban operations, and was based in Pakistan -- more often than not, in Balochistan.
Although this has been adequately documented in global reporting, it merits repetition here that the Taliban have regrouped rather well, although it may still be incapable of launching an Iraq-type insurgency. This is particularly the case in the Afghan countryside, particularly in provinces dominated by the Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pakistani and Taliban stratagem is favored further by the unfortunate fact that the Karzai regime has little control over southern and eastern Afghanistan. Sources indicate that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Hizb-e-Islami operatives, functioning from sanctuaries in and around Balochistan, have amplified their activities since March.
Islamabad has evidently allowed the Taliban to regroup within its territory and to launch attacks across the border. Despite selective arrests, there is no indication that Pakistan is about to cut the Taliban's lifeline on its soil. The essential objective is to prevent the Karzai regime from stabilizing without a pre-dominant Pakistani role.
In many ways, this is an existential strategy as far as Pakistan is concerned: a strong and stable regime in Kabul would immediately put the Durand Line into question, and further destabilize north Balochistan and the NWFP. Pakistan, consequently, will continue its efforts to recover "strategic depth" in Afghanistan, using the Taliban as a proxy, but will do so within limits that do not invite US ire and reprisals. Maintaining a threshold level of violence and subversion is integral to this strategy in Afghanistan.