A wounded Afghan man lies on a trolley as others take him to a hospital after a blast at a voter registration center in Khost province on May 6, 2018.A blast at a voter registration centre in Afghanistan's restive east on May 6 killed or wounded at least 30 people, officials said, capping a bloody week in the war-torn country. Photo: AFP / Farid Zahir
A wounded Afghan man lies on a trolley as others take him to a hospital after a blast at a voter registration center in Khost province on May 6, 2018. A blast at a voter registration centre in Afghanistan's restive east on May 6 killed or wounded at least 30 people, officials said, capping a bloody week in the war-torn country. Photo: AFP / Farid Zahir

As India deals with the abduction on Sunday morning of seven of its nationals who had been working as electrical engineers at Pul-e-Khumri, in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, its diplomats and intelligence agencies will have to assess the cause.

The engineers may have been kidnapped just for ransom; criminality has risen as the security situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan.

A second reason could be that the engineers had become victims of the crossfire between the government ant the Taliban in Baghlan on account of the Taliban’s perception that electricity is being denied to the province’s districts where they have control or influence. In the recent past, the Taliban have targeted power-transmission infrastructure in that northern province.

A third possibility is that it was undertaken specifically to target India’s role, position and status in Afghanistan. This would make it sinister for Indian interests in that country.

For the record, Baghlan provincial officials have said the Taliban carried out the abductions, but they have not seriously indicated what motivated them to do so.

Afghanistan’s security situation has worsened over the past few months. After the announcement that parliamentary and district council elections will be held in October, electoral registration centers in Kabul and in the provinces have been attacked by the Taliban and ISIS, resulting in high fatalities.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the April 22 terrorist attack on the voter registration center in Kabul’s Shia-majority locality. On May 6, the day the engineers were kidnapped, the Taliban attacked a voter registration center in Khost province, which is on the Durand Line delineating the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have also announced their spring offensive, thereby in effect turning their back on President Ashraf Ghani’s much publicized appeal that they abandon violence and turn to the path of political negotiations.

With all this, Afghanistan’s immediate future is especially troubling and bleak.

Cautious approach

As of now the Indian authorities have confirmed the abduction but have not said anything more. This sober approach is correct for their primary objective, which is the safe return of the engineers. Besides, it is for the Afghan government spokesmen really to comment on the details of the abduction and its possible causes. They too would be discreet for the sake of the well-being of the Indian engineers and their Afghan driver, who is also missing.

However, the cautions both governments will employ should not prevent a calm attempt at recalling certain facts about India’s position in Afghanistan.

The US wants India to raise its economic profile in Afghanistan both through its popular assistance programs and participation of its companies in commercial, construction and rehabilitation activities. President Donald Trump called for this enhanced Indian role in his August 21, 2017, Afghanistan and South Asia policy statement. This was in sharp contrast to his demand that Pakistan should stop supporting the Taliban and close down their sanctuaries on Pakistani territory.

Late last month, at their informal summit in Wuhan, China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping decided that their countries would undertake a joint project in Afghanistan. This is a clear manifestation of the Chinese desire for the stabilization of that country and also an acknowledgment of India’s position there.

Pakistan made no secret of its great unhappiness at Trump urging India to increase its economic footprint in Afghanistan. Unlike the past when US administrations advised Kabul to take Pakistan’s sensitivities into account when dealing with India, Trump had no hesitation in publicly asking India to play a greater role in Afghanistan.

This was a red flag to the Pakistani generals who control Islamabad’s actions across the Durand Line and have always wanted to curtail, if not eliminate, India’s position in Afghanistan. Indeed, the generals want in effect to control Afghanistan’s India policy.

China recognizes India’s role in Afghanistan

Now, China has indicated that India has a significant position in Afghanistan. Will it lead to the Pakistani generals introspecting about the basic postulates of their Afghan policies?

Pakistan, Afghanistan and the region will gain much if Islamabad sheds its exaggerated, if not unfounded, fears of the harm India can do from across the Durand Line. There is no evidence though that the generals will overcome their fears and work toward the integration of the region. They are likely to seek to continue their approach of combating India in Afghanistan. Will they, at this stage, undertake a new round of actions by targeting Indians to inhibit and even prevent Indian companies from operating in Afghanistan?

Pakistan has targeted Indian entities and nationals in Afghanistan over the past decade and a half. The Haqqani network, an Afghan guerrilla insurgent group, was used to attack the Indian Embassy in 2008. It led to the death of the defense attaché and a senior diplomat. A year later the embassy was again targeted.

Indians working in development and aid projects have been attacked and killed. Indians have been abducted too. Some of them were released by the kidnappers, while others were killed.

Despite these grave challenges, India has persisted with its impressive and popular assistance program, and some Indian companies have maintained their operations. It is inconceivable that India will go slow with its assistance program, though some private companies may naturally reassess the viability of continuing with their work. That will be a loss to Afghanistan.

Pakistan holds the key to the stabilization process in Afghanistan. The time has come for China to influence its “all weather” friend to change course. As it proceeds with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a critical part of the Belt and Road Initiative, it will be in its interest to do so.

Vivek Katju

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

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