Indian Operatives In Afghanistan: Will Modi Govt Protect Its Allies & Investments As Taliban Closing In On Kabul?

As the Taliban seizes key provinces and is close to capturing the Afghan capital Kabul, questions are being raised whether India’s $3 billion investments in the war-ravaged country are going down the drain.  

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Military and strategic affairs analysts The EurAsian Times spoke with have offered diverse views on India’s efforts to rebuild the South Asian country after the US began its “war on terror” in the past two decades.  

From education to healthcare and dam and highway, India has delivered big time in Afghanistan. However, the security of its investments seems to be called into question as the Taliban continues to make rapid advances. A quick look at development projects undertaken by New Delhi.  

Salma Dam 

The Salma Dam is a hydropower and irrigation project located in Afghanistan’s Herat province. It was inaugurated in 2016 and completed under major constraints.

It is popularly known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam and is a symbol of Indo-Afghan bilateral relations.

In the past few weeks, the Taliban have mounted offensives near the dam, during the course of which, many security personnel were killed. The Taliban also claim control of areas around the Salma Dam.

Salma Dam

Zaranj-Delaram Highway

The $150-million project was built by India’s Border Roads Organisation. The 218-km long Zaranj-Delaram highway, which lies in proximity to the Afghanistan-Iran border, stretches from the Khash Rud river-Delaram-northeast of Zaranj.

The highway proceeds to connect to a ring road, which links to Kandahar in the south, Ghazni and Kabul in the east, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and Herat in the west.

This highway is of utmost strategic interest to India and has been constructed through the collective efforts of 300 Indian engineers and construction workers in collaboration with their Afghan counterparts.

Eleven Indians and 129 Afghans had lost their lives during the construction. Six Indians were killed in terrorist attacks and the other five lost their lives in accidents. The highway provides an alternative route to the landlocked country following Islamabad’s denial of overland access to New Delhi for trade with Kabul.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressed the Geneva Conference last year about how India transported 75,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar.

Afghan Parliament Building

Housed in Kabul, the Afghanistan Parliament building cost $90 million. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated it in 2015.

The building has been touted as a triumph of Indian democracy in Afghanistan and a block inside the building has been named after former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Stor Palace

In 2016, PM Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inaugurated the restored palace in Kabul. The Stor Palace is where the historic 1919 Rawalpindi Agreement was signed, an agreement through which Afghanistan gained its independence.

The offices of the Afghan Foreign Minister and the Ministry were housed here until 1965. New Delhi, Kabul, and the Aga Khan Development Network signed a tripartite agreement for the restoration of the Stor Palace in 2009. The project was completed between 2013 and 2016 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar had announced at the Geneva conference last year that India is working on constructing the Shahtoot Dam in Kabul. The dam aims to provide safe drinking water to two million Afghan people.

The minister also announced that around 100 community development projects worth $80 million were underway.

Have India’s Efforts Gone In Vain?

Strategic affairs analyst and former Special Forces officer, Lieutenant General PC Katoch (Retd) told The EurAsian Times, “India’s $3 billion investments in Afghanistan were in good faith for improving lives of the Afghan populace.

But it was bereft of geostrategic realities and on the false belief that the US would stabilize Afghanistan and address the primary cause of instability in the region by leashing Pakistan, which the US has failed to do. On the contrary, America is abandoning Afghanistan to Taliban rule.”

Colonel Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd), an author and strategic affairs commentator, offers a slightly different opinion.

$3 billion have been spent over the past two decades on infrastructure development in Afghanistan. Roads, libraries, and schools have been constructed. Some significant projects are the Afghan Parliament and the Salma Dam,” he said.

This has earned a lot of goodwill from the common man, who likes India and hates Pakistan. This goodwill is visible, and the Taliban cannot ignore and deplore it. Goodwill is a bank deposit in Afghanistan, which India can encash after some years when the Taliban begins to develop the war-torn country. It will look towards India because its people will ask it to do so,” Kushwaha added.

According to the colonel, “this Taliban is different from the Taliban of the past. It would not like to be isolated and commit the same mistake as it did in the past”.

The Taliban representative has announced in Doha that “it would not allow its land to be used by terrorist groups from other countries. The Taliban spokesperson also emphasized that it would like India to carry on with its development work. The goodwill earned with people can allow India develop good relations subsequently with the Taliban,” Kushwaha said.

It should be noted that the Afghan Taliban have sympathies with the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan. At some stage, the Afghan Taliban will start supporting the TTP which is a bête noir of the Pakistani establishment. This will allow India to further exploit this (situation) if Pakistan does not desist from sponsoring Terrorism in Kashmir.”

Though Taliban has told China that it would not allow the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement of Xi Jiang to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, its hardcore Islamic policy will force it to develop sympathy towards Uyghur Muslims.

ETIM already has bases in Balochistan, and it is in league with the Baloch Liberation Army. It is suspected that the killing of nine Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu Dam was ETIM’s handiwork. Chinese atrocities on Uyghur Muslims would force the hard-core Taliban to go against Beijing in due course of time,” explained Col. Kushwaha.

A Mi-8/17 Helicopter was captured by the Taliban. (via Twitter)

The most important dividend of goodwill for India is to allow its operatives to carry on with their clandestine and covert activities,” he opined before concluding by saying, “In my final assessment, $3 billion have not gone down the drain but it is a good investment for the future. It would allow strategic maneuverability to India after this initial upset.”

Col. NN Bhatia, a former army officer, who went on to serve in the Intelligence Bureau, said that it’s Pakistan, which has created a false narrative about India in the media.

The Taliban has publicly committed to maintaining cordial relations with Beijing. They have given China an assurance that they will refrain from hosting the Uyghur Islamic insurgency in Xinjiang notwithstanding that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan waging an insurgency against Pakistan has become volatile and active in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And the Baloch are posing serious threats to USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Taliban has stepped up attacks against Pakistani and the Chinese interests.”

The Pakistani media, as part of its hostile narrative, has begun to propagate that the USD 3 billion Indian investment in Afghanistan has sunk. Furthermore, the security and well-being of numerous Indian citizens working on the development projects are gravely at stake. An environment of insecurity and ambiguity prevails in India while its External Affairs Minister is rightly engaged in deep diplomacy with concerned nations to ensure security and tranquility in the region,” said the former intelligence officer.

“Beijing aims to pander to Taliban’s mood in order to keep themselves in the Taliban’s good books as they fear that they [Taliban] can easily reach the Uighur Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Their rebellion against the CCP (the Communist Party of China) is being described as one of the most grotesque instances of human rights violations in the world,” said Bhatia.

“It is a colossal military and diplomatic failure of the US in Afghanistan; even worst than Vietnam & Iran-Iraq episodes; letting Taliban race to Kabul,” he added.

Author and former Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer, RK Yadav said, “In addition to Chabahar Port, Pakistan was disturbed due to construction of dams on rivers which can restrict the flow of water there. Dam on river Kabul was the main concern because of its water supply in Pakistan. Indian financial stake was mainly in these projects.

A Dispatch From The War Zone 

Despite reports on the Taliban making rapid advances in Afghanistan, an Indian diplomat who did wish to be identified said: “The situation in Kabul and nearby areas are quite safe but in other cities and towns, it is quite alarming because of the active support from the Inter-Services Intelligence & the Pakistani Army in the form of men, materials and logistics support including treatment of wounded Taliban (fighters) inside Pakistan.”

The Afghan Armed Forces are engaged in war-fighting but the shortage of pilots and tribal loyalties are encouraging desertion from forces.

Air-to-air weapons procured through various sources by the Taliban are the potential threats to pilots and others and owing to these, the Afghan Airforce is not able to perform up to their full potential.

Military personnel from some western countries have already started arriving in Kabul under the guise of safeguarding their personnel. Alternate arrangements are in place for safety even till the last moment as some of the assets are already in place for falling back for renewed war efforts, in case of the worst scenario in the capital city,” read the dispatch from the Indian diplomat.