Exclusive: ISI Pressure on Taliban to Hold onto 7 Indian Hostages
Image of security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, used for representational purposes.
Image of security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, used for representational purposes.(Photo: AP/Altered by The Quint)

Exclusive: ISI Pressure on Taliban to Hold onto 7 Indian Hostages

The Indian power-line engineers kidnapped in Afghanistan over the weekend are now being held in the Taliban-controlled village of Dand-i Shahabuddin on the northern fringes of the town of Pul-i Khumri in Afghanistan’s Baghlan, highly-placed sources in the country’s government have told The Quint.

Using a committee of village elders and clerics from Dand-i Shahabuddin as mediators, local authorities have begun negotiations with Qari Bakhtiar – a Kunduz-area ethnic Pashtun who serves as the Taliban’s deputy chief for the Baghlan area – in an effort to secure the release of the men, the sources said.

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Pak’s Growing Concerns About India’s Influence in Afghanistan

“Early on Sunday, Qari Bakhtiar said the kidnapping of the men was a mistake, and they would be released soon,” one senior Baghlan official who is familiar with the kidnapping said. “But later on Sunday, as the kidnapping acquired a higher media profile, negotiations stalled,” he added.

Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the Riyasat-i Amniyat-i Milli or National Directorate of Security, fears Bakhtiar’s Taliban unit may be under pressure from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence to draw out the kidnapping, in a bid to force out Indian power companies from northern Afghanistan, another Afghan government official said.

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The men, according to sources, were travelling without an armed escort at the time of their kidnapping, based on assurances from local contractors — as well as the Taliban — that they would not be harmed. The men had been working on a World Bank-funded project that links power suppliers in Central Asia to Afghanistan and Pakistan, much of it transiting through war-torn territory.

Islamabad’s intelligence services have long been concerned about India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, as they feel an economic relationship with India has encouraged Kabul to defy Pakistan’s historic influence.

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An RPG subsidiary, KEC International was among two Indian companies that won a $235.16 million contract in 2017, from Afghan state-run power firm Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat to build the CASA-1000 power line project, linking Pakistan, via Afghanistan, to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The project, Afghanistan hopes, will bring up to $50 million a year in transit fees — desperately needed by the country’s cash-strapped government.

A Power Project Stuck in Crossfire

KEC International, the firm for which the engineers were working, had been provided the services of 60 guards from the Ministry of Interior-run Afghan Public Protection Force, an industrial organisation set up to to protect infrastructure, a spokesperson for Baghlan Governor Abdul Hai Nemati told The Quint.

In December 2017, just as work on CASA-1000 began, Afghan forces backed by the country’s air force began a major new offensive to clear Taliban insurgents from areas around Pul-i Khumri. This sparked bitter clashes that led to the destruction of dozens of homes and a flood of refugees.

Then, in March, Taliban, under the command of Qari Bakhtiar, retaliated against the assault by blowing up power pylons carrying electricity from Uzbekistan, severing power supplies to Kabul, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak and Nangarhar.

Afghan government sources said that local police chief Brigadier Geneneral Akramuddin Sary dispatched troops to the area, but technical personnel declined to work on the pylons, fearing ambush.

Police responded by stepping up the pressure on Qari Bakhtiar, local government sources said, and detained his son, Tariq. The police’s hostage-taking operation is what initially led to negotiations involving Dand-i Shahabuddin village elders and clerics.

Also Read : India in touch with Afghan authorities over Indians' abduction

In the end, a bizarre compromise was reached. The Taliban agreed to allow work on the power lines to resume, in return for injured insurgents being allowed access to medical treatment in Pul-i Khumri. The Taliban were also assured that power would be supplied to villages under their control, including Sang Soragh, Karadak, Alikhel, Zahrabi, Kamra and Dand-i Shahabuddin.

Following the deal, RPG’s engineers were dispatched to begin work on the damaged pylons — but, based on advice from local residents, chose not to use their government-provided escorts, fearing it could provoke attack by the Taliban.

The decision, government sources said, was brought to the attention of Baghlan governor Nemati, who did not oppose the company’s choice.

Afghan Forces vs Taliban vs Local Militia

Fighting in the Baghlan region has been escalating steadily, with the Taliban making significant inroads since 2016, exploiting inter-ethnic fault lines and the disintegration of central authority. Ismail Khan and Muhammad Atta, both warlords who had played a key role in the jihad against the Soviet Union’s forces, blocked the government in Kabul from exercising power directly — and, at the same time, competed against each other.

Local militia commanders like Mustafa Andrabi stepped into this landscape, extorting money from travellers on the Baghlan-Balkh highway, linking Kabul to the north, and taxing nomads for the use of high mountain pastures.

From 2015, though, the Taliban began to displace these militia, building-up their presence in the ethnic-Pashtun dominated Dand-e Ghori area, north-west of Pul-i Khumri. In September that year, the Taliban seized control of Dand-e Ghori, and held it for five months before being defeated by Afghan security forces.

Lacking in numbers, though, the security forces were compelled to hand over the security of Dand-e Ghori to a militia led by Mullah Alam, an Ahmadzai Pashtun and one-time jihad commander against the Soviet Union, who is linked to the Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan.

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Taliban Expands Footprint, Stamps Out Local Warlords

Within days, Mullah Alam’s forces were defeated, but skirmishes continued. In 2016, the United Nations estimated “more than 32,500 individuals [were] displaced by the fighting in Dand-e-Ghori and Dand-e-Shahabuddin.”

The Taliban also expanded their presence, capturing the key village of Chashma-ye Shir in the summer of 2016, and conducting checks on traffic on the Baghlan-Balkh highway. In addition to threatening security forces members using public transport, the Taliban began taxing truck traffic and farmers.

Local resistance was ruthlessly stamped out. In the small ethnic-Hazara village of Surkh Kotal, anti-Taliban fighters led by former jihad commander Juma Din Mubarez were brought under sustained attack, and forced to flee after heavy losses.

Even though Taliban in the Pul-e Khumri area have suffered losses too, with their long-serving commander Maulvi Lal being killed in an air strike last year, its fighters continue to dominate key sectors of the Baghlan-Balkh highway.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author. He can be reached at @praveenswami.)

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