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Wake-up call in Afghanistan

The wanton murder of Maniappan Ramankutty, a humble driver with the Border Roads Organisation, underlines the Taliban militia's utter contempt for civilised norms — including the fundamental precepts of Islam and the traditional Afghan code of honour. Mr. Maniappan was an unarmed civilian who brought to Afghanistan nothing other than his skills as a driver and a willingness to leave the safety and security of his own land to work for the rehabilitation of a brother nation. Breaking with the pattern of kidnappings in Afghanistan or Iraq, the criminals who seized him appear to have decided from the start that they would liquidate him. The `demand' that the BRO leave Afghanistan within 48 hours precluded any reasonable negotiation to secure his release. India has cultural and civilisational links with Afghanistan going back tens of centuries. Despite the acrimony of recent years — and the role of Pakistan's intelligence services in cultivating the Taliban as a source of `strategic depth' against India — the militia has not, until now, taken a direct part in any physical attack on Indian nationals. Why has it chosen to do so at this time? What is the message being sent to New Delhi?

As the Indian security establishment thinks carefully about these questions, it is clear the fundamental thrust of the country's Afghan policy must be the economic and strategic integration of Afghanistan with South Asia. Until now, India and Pakistan have tended to look at Afghanistan as a zero-sum game in which one country's gain must necessarily be at the cost of the other. So Islamabad denies India easy overland access to its western neighbour while New Delhi seeks actively to build a special relationship with President Hamid Karzai as leverage against Pakistan. Given the Taliban's traditional links with the Pakistani intelligence establishment, it is possible the militia is being used to deliver a message to New Delhi, which finds itself in a sticky position. India's interests lie in continuing engagement, yet it is not in a position to protect its citizens working in Afghanistan. Its response to the crisis following Mr. Maniappan's abduction was slow, and possibly inept. The solution to this tough problem lies in three areas. First, while maintaining close relations with President Karzai, New Delhi must avoid giving the impression it is getting embroiled in Afghanistan's internal politics. Secondly, the emphasis on non-security-related cooperation and assistance, especially in infrastructure and training, must be maintained. Thirdly, there must be a constructive effort to work together with Pakistan on specific projects inside Afghanistan. The proposed Turkmen-Afghan pipeline suggests itself, as do hydro-electric projects linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan to a common South Asian grid. There are plenty of possibilities for cooperation but what is needed is an intelligent change in policy mindset.

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