By Praveen Swami
08 May 2018
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Praveen Swami is a senior journalist and author.