The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Caught between two strategic interests

New Delhi, Nov. 23: Maniappan Raman Kutty, the driver-cum-technical hand with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), was beheaded on Tuesday by the Taliban in an Afghan desert for reasons of Indian strategic interest.

Someone should try explaining that to his family in Kerala.

Maniappan is one of some 400 Indians who work in Afghanistan on projects sponsored by the Indian government. These projects are funded by New Delhi’s $550-million aid to the embattled nation. Among the projects are a school in Kabul, a power transmission line to the Afghan capital from its north, a microwave television network and the Zaranj-Delaram road.

Of all these endeavours, Project Zaranj is easily the riskiest.

Its personnel cannot camp near a city or an urban centre and do not have the security that keeps such population centres safe in a lawless land. For an outfit like the Taliban, Indian workers in the dust bowl of Nimroze ' the province where they are building the road ' are easy prey.

If Maniappan landed in Afghanistan for Indian strategic interest, he was killed for a Taliban strategic interest.

India wants to ensure a toehold in Afghanistan. The Taliban kills an innocent now and then to deliver the message to Washington that Daisy Cutter bombs have not exterminated them.

Once built, the 219-km Zaranj-Delaram road Maniappan was working on would allow Indian equipment to be transported across Afghanistan and a communication link to Uzbekistan.

In the absence of transit rights through Pakistan, the Indian government is dependent on the Iranian port of Chabahar. It ships heavy equipment to the port, then transports them by road through Zaranj and Delaram and connects to the Garland Highway that circumscribes central Afghanistan.

Maniappan was engaged in this noble venture. It is another matter that he was also doing it for a livelihood.

Indian projects in Afghanistan are less secure for Indians than the American project of Afghanistan is for Americans. American and European reconstruction teams are always escorted by armoured vehicles.

What about Indian construction teams, as in Zaranj-Delaram' Bands of Taliban and brigands rule the countryside on either side of US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) security convoys.

Some of them do so with impunity. For instance, Taliban spokesmen are always able to claim “achievements” by using the satellite telephone to pass messages to news organisations.

Such is the context in which the Indian paramilitary outfit, the BRO, has deployed its personnel in Nimroze. As it is, BRO personnel have a trying time. Weather conditions vary from minus 10 degrees Celsius in winter to plus 55 degrees Celsius in summer. Sandstorms make it impossible to work for more than four to five hours a day. But there is protection from nature. There is none from the Taliban.

In sum, India’s Afghan project to checkmate Pakistan has been taken up without Delhi fully appreciating the security implications for its personnel. The security complement for Indian installations in Afghanistan is from the Indo Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force. It has no mandate for preventive security. The workers engaged in Indian government projects are completely dependent on the US forces, US-assisted ISAF and the Hamid Karzai administration.

The US and Karzai have their very own Afghan projects. The Indians are therefore easy prey for the Taliban. This is not the first time. In 2003, another Indian was taken hostage. His release could be negotiated with the good offices of Asadullah Khalid, now the governor of Kandahar.

It is now apparent that India did not even try to negotiate the release of Maniappan. This could be part of a new Israel-like policy. But Maniappan who was earning a livelihood in the wilderness and wars of Afghanistan should have been told about it.

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