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India's troubles in Afghanistan

Forced out of power in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban remains an oppressively domineering militia outside the bounds of civilised, humane conduct. By abducting and killing the Indian telecom engineer, K. Suryanarayana, without giving Indian officialdom any space for negotiating his release, the Taliban reinforced its image as a beyond-the-pale outfit rooted in obscurantism in the name of religion. According to one report, Suryanarayana was shot dead when he attempted to flee captivity; his body was found beheaded. But irrespective of the immediate circumstances surrounding the tragedy, the Taliban had really no intention of sticking to the deadline it set for the withdrawal of all Indians working in Afghanistan. The 24-hour deadline itself was unrealistic, a clear indicator that the plan behind the abduction was to shock and awe the people of India — not wrest any concessions. From the beginning, the Taliban seemed intent on forcing India to disengage itself from any form of cooperation with the changed order in Afghanistan. Significantly, the killing came within weeks of a high-profile visit to India by President Hamid Karzai. Last year, Maniappan Raman Kutty was killed within a couple of months of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Afghanistan and within days of India awarding the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize to Mr. Karzai. By all accounts, the Taliban appears to resent India's growing involvement in the development of Afghanistan's infrastructure, and its repeated endorsement of the leadership of Mr. Karzai. Following the United States-led invasion in 2001, New Delhi ended its deep association with the Northern Alliance; since it was not involved in the military action, the Taliban did not identify it as an "enemy." However, the situation has changed over the past two years on account of the personal rapport Mr. Karzai has built with the Indian leadership. For the Taliban, India is now a collaborator — and a soft target.

From the Indian perspective, a close relationship with Afghanistan is desirable. Among other things, it helps to neutralise Islamabad's clout in the region. Sections within the Pakistan establishment have used the Taliban as a weapon against India. A committed relationship with the Karzai Government has its strategic advantages, but New Delhi must take care not to be perceived as embodying an extension of American interests in Kabul. Without being seen as succumbing to vile acts of terrorism, India should re-evaluate its current policy of close identification with specific political factions within Afghanistan. However much security measures are strengthened for the 2,000 Indian nationals working in Afghanistan, there can be no protection against the threat of abduction from free-roaming outlaws. The challenge before India is to increase its stake in the long-term development of Afghanistan and strengthen people-to-people contacts without appearing to take sides in the political factional wars in that country.

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