The India factor in Afghanistan

BY VK SHASHIKUMAR

In 2001 US and its allies launch the war against terrorism after the world is stunned by the horrific terror on the WTC twin towers in New York. Seven years later Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large and Taliban has regrouped just across Afghanistan’s southern borders in Pakistan’s volatile Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province. “We want peace and security to rebuild this country that has been completely destroyed after 30 years of war but we will not allow people to cross our border and attack us. So, what we want is the possibility of hot pursuit of those who are crossing our borders and attacking our people and friends,” says Zalmay Rasoul, National Security Adviser, Afghanistan.

ISI and Taliban

A new terror leadership has emerged in Pakistan with people like Beitullah Mehsud leading the Taliban revivalism along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pakistani Taliban is the new source of terrorism emerging from the tribal areas of Pakistan, staging beheadings of those allegedly collaborating with the Pakistani security forces and launching a series of attacks across the Pakistan border on the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. “Beitullah Mehsud is officially announcing in a press conference that we are going to bring jehad in Afghanistan that means what?”, asks Rasoul.

Local media reports in Afghanistan suggest NATO has increased the troop strength on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, after several American soldiers were killed by the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. But it was the suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy on July 7, 2008 that forced India and the international community to revisit the close ties between Pakistan’s ISI and the Taliban. “I hold the ISI guilty I do not hold the Pakistan government per se necessarily as complicit in this but we’ll trust and verify, but I’m very clear in my mind the villain of the piece is the ISI,” says MK Narayanan, National Security Adviser, India. His counterpart in Kabul agrees. “I agree with Mr Narayanan in this view, I support it. The indications that we have suggest that the ISI was behind the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul,” says Rasoul. Intelligence sources told CNN-IBN that the 324 Field Intelligence Unit attached to the Peshawar-based XI Corps of the Pakistan Army was involved in the attack. Kabul city is crawling with Afghan secret service officials looking for Pakistani agents let loose by Adam Khan, the Kabul station-head of the ISI. The attack on the Indian Embassy, followed by series of Taliban strikes in Southern Afghanistan, killing scores of civilians and NATO troops, many of them Americans, provoked Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to speak his mind: “We know who martyred people in Kabul. Now this has become clear. We have told the Government of Pakistan that killings of people in Afghanistan, the destruction of bridges in Afghanistan are carried out by Pakistan’s intelligence and Pakistan’s military departments.”

Karzai’s words had an immediate effect in Washington with President George W Bush making a candid observation: “Some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan. And that is troubling to us; it is troubling to Afghanistan; and it should be troubling to Pakistan.” A resurgent Taliban is a concern for India too. “We apprehend that there will be further intensification of attacks. We have enough information that there are at least three or four specifically targeted attacks on our personnel including our two consulates at Kandahar and Jalalabad. I think on the long term basis we will have to look at really fortifying some of these places,” says Narayanan. India’s Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon who was in Kabul days after the attack said: “Every leader I met saw this as an attack on both India and Afghanistan. I told them (the Afghan Government) that our commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan is unwavering.”Strong commitments in Afghanistan need stronger security measures. India has deployed more numbers of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Their primary role will be to enhance the perimeter security of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and four other consulates in Afghanistan-Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Likely employment of ITBP will be as under:-

  • The Indian Embassy in Kabul may have over 100 ITBP personnel at its gates.
  • The same number would be stationed at each of the four consulates.
  • ITBP personnel would also be tasked to secure Indian infrastructure projects.

The ITBP personnel undergo the same training and conditioning as army infantry units. As the force operates in the mountains it may have less problem acclimatising to Afghanistan. With the security of Indian missions being strengthened, both India and Afghanistan are keen to deepen their relationship. “We would like to expand multi-lateral co-operation with India.

“We would like to expand the Indian involvement in Afghanistan as much as possible because we believe that this is crucial to stability to Afghanistan,” says Humayun Hamidzai, Presidential spokesperson.

In series of packed press conferences at the foreign ministry in Kabul, Humayun Hamidzai, has been voicing President Karzai’s view-that Pakistan’s ISI along with Taliban will not be allowed to destabilise New Delhi’s growing ties with Kabul, or launch terror attacks inside Afghanistan intended to kill civilians and troops belonging to the Afghan National Army and NATO. The message from Kabul is clear and unambiguous.

“Our message to Pakistan is-enough is enough,” says Rasoul.

The Indian Factor

At a memorial service in Kabul, Afghan diplomats and politicians joined their Indian counterparts to honour those who died in the attack on the Indian Embassy. Four of those killed – Defence Attache Brigadier RD Mehta, Counsellor V Rao and ITBP personnel Ajai Rathore and Roop Singh, have been awarded the Kirti Chakra, India’s second-highest peacetime gallantry medal.

In an emotional tribute, Afghan Defence Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, who had struck up a personal friendship with Brigadier Mehta said: “I pay my tributes to my Indian brothers.” Afghan cabinet ministers made an aggressive pitch for rooting out terror from the region. They want terror bases,recruitment hubs and financial links that have enabled the Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup in Pakistan to be targeted. “An intricate network of training, financing and recruitment is supporting terrorist bases behind our borders where suicide bombers are being trained,” says Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Foreign Minister, Afghanistan.

India’s increasing involvement in strategic infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, has Pakistan’s ISI worried. India has invested over 3,248 crore rupees in aid, half of which is going into building a transmission line to provide power to Kabul, a hydel project in Herat, a new parliament building and the vital Zaranj-Delaram road that will give landlocked Afghanistan access to the sea through Iran. “I think this attack was on the Afghan-Indian friendship. You know since 2001, India has been at the forefront of helping Afghanistan rebuild itself,” says Rasoul.

Meanwhile, just a week after the attack on the Indian Embassy, the mission started functioning, getting on with business. Visa applications are once again being processed and all consular work is happening in full flow as it used to before the terror attack. “We run a massive capacity development programme in Afghanistan, which includes sending 500 Afghani students to various Indian universities every year and training 500 Afghan civil servants as well,” says Jayant Prasad, Indian Ambassador in Kabul. Mohammed Sami, an Afghan student who secured admission in the University of Pune through this scheme was grateful that even though his “papers were destroyed in the attack”, the Indian Embassy assured him of all possible help to facilitate his travel to Pune. Such is the impact of India’s capacity development programme in Afghanistan that the Afghans started queuing up for the Indian visa as soon the Embassy re-opened within seven days of the terror strike. This is an unmistakable sign of the tremendous goodwill India has generated in Afghanistan through its comprehensive humanitarian and development aid.

All of this activity happens amidst reconstruction of the Embassy, which is happening at a feverish pace. In fact, almost all signs of the terror attack were erased from the site by August 15, just in time for the celebrations of India’s Independence Day. The Embassy now wears a spanking new look. And must be underlined is the commitment of India to Afghanistan’s development as nobody in the Indian missions or those involved in infrastructure projects has asked for a posting back to India. “Posting to Afghanistan is on a voluntary basis and the commitment to rebuild continue to be strong,” says Prasad.

They say in the streets of Kabul that India lives in the hearts of every Afghan. “Woh bolte hai ki hum unke bhai ke tarah hai,” says Guruswamy, an engineer in an Indian private sector company, KEC International. Indians are bringing in real, visible change in Afghanistan like the 200 km power transmission line, a key infrastructure project in a war ravaged country, now almost complete. It will bring power from Central Asia to Kabul, and is being built by the Power Grid Corporation, a public sector unit of the Government of India. This 220 KV double-circuit power transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul will draw power from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. “This project will bring 220 KV power to Kabul for the first time in Afghanistan’s history,” says V Shekhar, General Manager, Power Grid Corporation of India, at his site office in Chimtala at the northern outskirts of Kabul.

The Power Grid Corporation of India is building the most challenging part of the transmission line, which goes over the avalanche-prone Hindukush mountains. “We had to chose the correct locations for installing the transmission towers to ensure that these towers wouldn’t be damaged by avalanches. So, tower spotting was a difficult task. We had to also be careful about mines,” says Shekhar. Kabul has faced years of acute power shortage. But by October the Kabulis would be relieved when power comes through the 700 pre-fabricated towers shipped all the way from India.

Near Salang, where the transmission line is 4,000 metres above sea level, Afghan workers and Indian engineers extend cables from one tower to another. This is the only stretch of work that remains to be completed. Stringing cables between two towers in this difficult mountainous terrain was a challenge, and the Power Grid Corporation has successfully demonstrated that it can undertake such complex technical projects and execute them successfully. Indian engineers have specially designed these towers and transmission lines to withstand extreme weather because the towers located in the Hindukush mountains are snowbound for eight months of the year. “This was a very difficult assignment, because, the transmission line passes through 4,000-metre high mountain range, and we have demonstrated to the world that we are second to none, when it comes to successfully implementing such challenging projects,” says Venkat Rao, a senior engineer.

At Chimtala, near Kabul, Indian engineers huddle at a review meeting. Bharat Heavy Electricals is in charge of the sub-station, which is part of the US$ 110 million project. The ambitious project has received threats from various terror outfits. But Indian officials in charge say none have been carried out because the local people have come out firmly in support of the project. India’s humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan is making real and perceptible difference in the lives of the Afghans, and is perhaps the best strategic investment India is making in its long- term battle against terrorism. “Indians enjoy tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan because of India’s significant assistance to Afghanistan. They are doing their best, and after US they are the second country with the largest amount invested in the reconstruction of Afghanistan,” says Farida Nekhzad, Managing Editor, Pahjwok News Agency.

At the Afghanistan-India Vocational Training Centre, set up by the Confederation of Indian Industries, signs of change are visible. Modeled on the Industrial Training Institutes in India, this centre in Kabul is training Afghans to take part in rebuilding their country. A carpentry apprentice says: “I will set up a carpentry workshop once my training is over. There are many opportunities available for those who can take part in the reconstruction economy. As a professional carpenter I can earn 60 to 90,000 Afghani.” Colonel (Retd) Ravindra Kharbanda, Project Director, Afghanistan-India Vocational Training Centre says. “The training the Afghans are getting in this institute will enable them to get employment in the reconstruction and rebuilding economy of their country. We are training the Afghans so that they can be employed and improve the economy of their country.”

Indian trainers like Jagdish Kumar are creating a skilled workforce for Afghanistan. “In Afghanistan, lot of construction is going on, so, if they learn here properly then they can earn a livelihood. We give them training about everything regarding construction,” says Jagdish Kumar, Masonry Trainer in the Afghanistan-India Vocational Training Centre. Colonel Kharbanda says he has been getting calls from many provinces of Afghanistan requesting him to set up industrial training centres. “I have been inundated with calls from governors and provinces, on whether we could accommodate their people, and whether such a facility can be opened in their state,” he says.

At the Bagh-e-Zanana in Kabul an Indian NGO, the Self Employed Women’s Association or SEWA, has set up a first-of-its-kind vocational training centre for Afghan women. The Gujarat-based NGO opened this training centre in 2006. The aim is to empower Afghan women by training them in vegetable farming, food processing and entrepreneurship. “I have a garden. When I complete my training I want to convert this garden into a vegetable farm and start a new business,” says an Afghan woman trainee. “I am learning how to make juices and jams. Once I am fully trained I will start a home- based business and sell these products in the market. I am sure I will be able to give my family a good standard of living,” says Ruhella.

The Bagh-e-Zanana is now a meeting ground for Afghan women to start friendships and partnerships and discuss on ways to be economically secure and independent. This would have been impossible eight years ago when the Taliban ran the country. “If we organise ourselves as a group then we can earn more money and with that money we can support our families,” says a group of women at the SEWA training centre in Kabul. Many such groups of women are planning to start home-based businesses after they leave the centre. “We will earn more money if we set up a co-operative. If we join hands and pool resources, we will be better off than doing business on our own,” says Nafisa. The spirit of these Afghan women has got Kabul and New Delhi to keep up the momentum. SEWA is now planning to set up a Community Business Resource Centre at Bagh-e-Zanana.

Conclusion

India is making a difference in Afghanistan by training and imparting skills to Afghans, enabling them to join the rebuilding and reconstruction effort in their country. One of the biggest insurance of Kabuliwallahs against instability is India’s humanitarian and development aid. India lives in the heart of every Afghan. No wonder, the Pakistan and ISI are worried that with every passing day its so-called “strategic depth” is becoming shallower by the minute. That’s why the ISI planned the terror attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

(Note: This piece first appeared on the Indian Defence Review website on January 14, 2012. It has been reproduced here with the author’s permission)

(VK Shashikumar is an investigative journalist and a strategist. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)

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