Kidnappings in Afghanistan
The tightening on external resources have led to terror groups focusing on local resources and avenues to generate the much-needed finances.
Liberal donations from wealthy individuals and assorted 'charities' in the Gulf Sheikhdoms used to be the primary source of terror funding in Afghanistan, till disruptive measures to block the same were progressively enforced. Similarly, the practice of 'front companies' with legitimate businesses were used to launder profit money and 'donations' to the terror groups in Afghanistan. However, this too was brought under international scrutiny with countries known to be complicit in the same, put under the 'watch list' of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global terror-financing watchdog that calls the bluff of sovereign sophistry in facilitating or allowing questionable transactions. For long Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has blamed Pakistan singularly for giving shelter, support and aid to terror groups in Afghanistan. Recently, Pakistan's declared doctrine and incorrigible lust for 'Strategic Depth' within Afghanistan has led to featuring on the 'grey list', a precursor to the 'black list'. US President Donald Trump has already castigated Pakistan by saying that it has, "given us nothing but lies & deceit" and frozen security aid worth $1.3 billion.
The tightening on the external resources has led to terror groups focusing on local resources and avenues to generate the much-needed finances. This makes illicit opium trade as the major source of financing terror, and the production of the same has achieved record levels (9000 metric tons in 2017). The correlation of Taliban-held lands and increased opium production is direct, with the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province recording the highest increase in opium production (this province itself surpasses the opium production of the world's second-largest producer, Myanmar). Counternarcotic measures have essentially failed in Afghanistan and given the complexity, intrigues and intermingling of socio-economic interests of the various stakeholders, other than terror groups themselves e.g. tribal warlords, desperate farmers and even governmental authorities and agencies – the spiraling growth of illicit opium trade is a reality. Besides taxing the opium trade imperatives, the terror groups also levy self-sustaining taxes on traffic movement, government programs, cell phone operators and movement of other natural resources. However, all of this is susceptible to the frequent changing-hands of the territories and disruptions in the form of Afghan/NATO troop operations, bombardments and drone attacks. This has opened up space for the burgeoning 'kidnapping industry' within Afghanistan that targets rich businessmen, domestic and foreign troops, and even international-civilian workers on the various project sites, spread across Afghanistan.
Seven Indian engineers working in a power station in Northern Baghlan, were kidnapped by unknown gunmen in the outskirts of the provincial capital, Puli Khumri. While the local Governor Abdul Hai Nemati was quick to blame the Taliban, there are approximately 20 terror groups operating in Afghanistan who could have partaken the act, besides even tribal militias who are desperate for finances and not necessarily connected to terror. Afghanistan is the land of 'ghost money' and 'exchange of suitcases' which leads to impromptu realignments of various factions and the ever-changing narrative of the internecine battles. Weeks after 9/11, even the CIA is believed to have distributed over $70 million to the mercenary warlords to switch-sides and ensure the quick collapse of the Taliban regime, and President George Bush had hailed the cost of this tactic as a 'bargain'. However, since then the concept of 'easy money' has resurfaced with over 60 recorded kidnappings in the last two months itself.
What works to India's advantage to secure the release is the fact that the official Taliban spokespersons have not confirmed this act of abduction as their own, and even the local news filtering from the site attribute it to a case of mistaken identity. Importantly, the Baghlan province to the North of Kabul is dominated by Tajiks (40 per cent), Turkmen (15 per cent , Hazaras (15 per cent), and Uzbeks (9 per cent), whereas the more Taliban-affiliated Pashtun are only 20 per cent of the population. A couple of months back, hundreds of Baghlan residents composed of civil-rights activists, tribal leaders and even politicians had staged a demonstration against Pakistan, asking it to be declared a state-sponsor of terrorism and to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against the same. Dr. Osman Sherzai, the leader of this unprecedented anti-Pakistan protest had alluded to Pakistani interference and support for terrorism in Afghanistan. With such divided local opinions, hiding this group of kidnapped Indians in the urban squalor of Puli Khumri, where they are said to be ensconced for now, could be difficult for the abductors and invariably the locals could bear upon the kidnappers to come on to the negotiation tables. Already the 'tribe elders and negotiations' are said to be underway. In 2003 two Indians, Pemmasani Murali and Gonem Varadaiah, who were working for a construction company were kidnapped and later released, as also in 2008, another Indian national Sarand Mohammad Naeem was kidnapped and later released.
However, the Baghlan region has remained tense and violent in recent times with Taliban elements seizing the district of Tala Wa Bafrak in the Baghlan province, after heavy fighting with the Afghan government troops. The Pakistani spy agency ISI has been unequivocally accused of prompting its two proxies in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba of attacking Indian facilities, interests and people – the two attacks on the Indian Embassy in 2008 and 2009, as well as the 2010 attack on the Indian guesthouses had led to an international uproar with the US President George W Bush confronting the Pakistani Prime Minister Raza Gilani with incriminating evidence and threatening him with 'serious action'. Therefore a multi-pronged approach to secure our nationals invoking the popular perceptions of Indians per se in Afghanistan by conjoining locals in negotiations, bearing domestic and international pressure on the terror groups and their benefactors in Islamabad, and stepping up Indian muscle from 'soft power' to more assertive power e.g. recent Indian decision to supply four Mi-24 gunships to undertake counter-terrorism operations should enable India to secure its assets in Afghanistan. The kidnapping industry in Afghanistan is a natural outcome of the mutations and desperations of the terror dynamics that seeks internal sources to sustain itself.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal