Killed in cold blood

Print edition : May 19, 2006

Family members of Suryanarayana with his photograph in Hyderabad. -

The kidnapping and killing of the Indian telecom engineer is another warning from the Taliban against the Indian presence in Afghanistan.

THE brutal killing of K. Suryanarayana, the 41-year-old telecom engineer from Hyderabad working for a Bahrain-based firm in Afghanistan, has once again focussed attention on the continuing violence and instability in the country. Suryanarayan was captured by the Taliban on April 29 in the restive province of Zabul.

The Taliban issued an ultimatum to the Indian government to withdraw all Indian citizens from Afghanistan within 48 hours. But even before the ultimatum expired, it announced that Suryanarayana had been killed while trying to escape. His decapitated body was found on the same day. The Indian government sent a delegation from the Ministry of External Affairs in an attempt to secure his release. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran described the killing as a "pre-meditated" act by the Taliban and its "sponsors".

The Taliban, after its ouster from power, has been ruthless in dealing with hostages, especially foreigners. Unlike in Iraq, where the payment of ransom has facilitated the release of hostages, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been more ideologically driven. In recent months, suicide attacks have been recurring with alarming frequency throughout Afghanistan. In the last week of April, a missile fired by the terrorists missed the Indian and United States embassy buildings in Kabul. The two offices are situated on the same street.

According to news reports, the Taliban has consolidated further its position in southern Afghanistan, the Pashtun heartland. Suicide bombers have struck even in the prosperous province of Herat in western Afghanistan. Interestingly, the U.S. State Department, in its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" released at the end of April, does not list the Taliban as "a foreign terrorist organisation", though the list mentions the Hamas, Al Qaeda and the Hezbollah.

There are more than 1,300 Indians officially listed as working on various projects in Afghanistan. However, Indian officials admit that they are not sure about the exact number. Indians recruited by companies in the Gulf are assigned to Afghanistan routinely. Officials estimate that there may be hundreds of professionals like Suryanarayana working in Afghanistan but are undocumented. People from the subcontinent are willing to take risks as the emoluments offered by foreign companies are strong incentives.

India, on its part, seems determined to play an important role in rebuilding the war-torn country. New Delhi has pledged $650 million in assistance so far. Out of this amount, $200 million has already been spent. Indian engineers and workers are active in constructing roads and buildings and in the telecom sector. The Foreign Secretary reiterated that despite the targeting of Indians, New Delhi will continue with its "fraternal assistance to the people of Afghanistan in their endeavours to bring peace, stability and economic recovery".

Maniappan Raman Kutty, a driver with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), was the first Indian to be killed in cold blood by the Taliban, in November 2005. After this episode, the Indian authorities increased the strength of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commandos in Afghanistan to 300. The main task of the ITBP is to protect the Indian employees of the BRO. The move to deploy the ITBP has, however, raised suspicions in neighbouring Pakistan.

The BRO, according to the official handout, is India's "most reputed, multifaceted, trans-national, modern construction organisation committed to meeting the strategic needs of the (Indian) armed forces". It is for the first time since Independence that Indian military personnel have been stationed in Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment is obviously not too happy with this. Until a couple of years ago, the Pakistani establishment was claiming that Afghanistan provided the country "strategic military depth".

The fact-finding mission from the Ministry of External Affairs that went to Afghanistan following the kidnapping and murder of Suryanarayana has recommended that India's security apparatus in Afghanistan be strengthened further. There is also increasing pressure from the West on India to become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deployed in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, speaking to the media in the first week of May, said that India was talking to the Afghanistan government about increasing its security presence in the country after the recent events. Many people in Afghanistan view the ISAF as an occupation force. It comprises troops from NATO members and countries aspiring to be part of the European Union and NATO.

The killing of Suryanarayana has come in the wake of the release of the latest video recording of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in Al Qaeda, who is reportedly holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In his speech, Zawahiri was critical of the Indian government, describing it as an ally of the U.S. and Israel. Zawahari mentioned the visit of President George W. Bush to the subcontinent in March. He said that Bush gave "a strong impetus to the Indian nuclear programme, while doling out orders to Pakistan". Zawahari urged Pakistani soldiers to "disobey" orders from their officers "to kill Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan".

When the Taliban was in power, relations between Afghanistan and India were particularly tense. Until its overthrow by a U.S.-led invasion force in 2001, Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the main backers of the Taliban. India, along with Russia and Iran, had thrown its weight behind the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

Although the influence of Northern Alliance politicians has waned considerably in Kabul in the past couple of years, India with some help from the Bush administration continues to retain its clout with the government led by Hamid Karzai.

Karzai had recently led a 110-strong delegation on a four-day visit to India. It was his fourth visit to the country since taking office in 2001. Much of the discussions in New Delhi focussed on the issue of terrorism. Both sides indicated that the rising spiral of terrorism in Afghanistan could be arrested if more help was forthcoming from Pakistan. Karzai's visit to Islamabad earlier in the year had led to mutual recriminations, with the two sides accusing each other of interference in its domestic affairs.

Karzai has on several occasions said that Islamabad is not doing enough to rein in the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf had said that the Afghanistan leader "was totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country".

Pakistani officials have asserted that Afghanistan is lending a helping hand to India for "subversive" activities. They object particularly to the string of Indian consulates that have come up along the Pakistan border. Pakistani officials claim that much of the funding and arms for the Baluchi tribal rebels, grouped under the umbrella of the Baluchistan Liberation Army, are funnelled through the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar.

In the eyes of many Pakistani officials, Afghanistan under Karzai is reverting to its pre-1992 position on India, adopted by the Soviet-backed government from the mid-1970s. During his February visit to Pakistan, Karzai had assured his Pakistani hosts that Afghanistan's relations with India would in no way "impact on ties with Pakistan".

At the same time, Karzai, said that he favoured "a tri-polar structure of cooperation" involving the three countries. The Afghanistan President wants India and Pakistan to concentrate on regional development and leave aside contentious bilateral issues, including Kashmir.

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