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    South Asia
     Jan 27, 2007
India takes a slow road
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the spurt in violent attacks in recent months have heightened India's concern over the security of Indians working in that country.

This was among the issues raised by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee during his two-day visit to Kabul. In the Afghan capital to invite President Hamid Karzai to the upcoming summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation in New Delhi, Mukherjee announced that India, Afghanistan's fifth-largest donor, is hiking its financial contribution

to Afghanistan's reconstruction and development by another US$100 million, raising its aid assistance to that country to $750 million.

India, Afghanistan and the United Nations Development Program also signed a memorandum of understanding on capacity-building there.

Mukherjee drew the attention of the Karzai government to the threat posed by the Taliban to Indians working in Afghanistan. About 3,000 are engaged in infrastructure construction, capacity-building and development projects in Afghanistan.

Indians have repeatedly been targeted by the Taliban. In 2003, two engineers working on a road project in Zabul were abducted and subsequently released. The same year, an engineer with an Afghan telecom company was shot dead. In 2005, a driver working with the Zaranj-Delaram highway project was abducted and then killed. And in 2006, an engineer with a Bahraini company was executed.

It is those who are engaged in road-building activity in Afghanistan who have been the most vulnerable.

India's involvement with road-building is bitterly opposed by both the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan, as the highway under construction not only will boost Afghanistan's connectivity and trade ties with the outside world, it will also enhance the trade and influence of Iran and India - countries whose relations with Islamabad and the Taliban are hardly friendly. Pakistan fears that with the completion of the highway, India's presence and influence in its neighborhood to the north, ie Central Asia, will increase manifold.

India's Border Roads Organization (BRO) is constructing the 217-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway in the southwest of the country. It will link Zaranj, which lies on Afghanistan's border with Iran, to Delaram, situated on the "garland highway". The garland highway links Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz. Once the highway is completed, Zaranj will be linked to several Afghan cities.

This highway will connect Iran with the garland highway, too. Iran has been working on improving road links from its ports to towns that lie on its border with Afghanistan. It has completed construction of a vital bridge on the Helmand River marking the frontier between itself and Afghanistan, and is busy upgrading the road from Chabahar, where its new port on the Makran coast is coming up, to Zaranj.

So once the Zaranj-Delaram highway is completed, goods from Afghanistan's main cities can be brought overland to the border with Iran from where they will be transported to Chabahar, and vice versa. The Zaranj-Delaram highway will provide landlocked Afghanistan with a valuable lifeline.

Currently, Afghanistan's access to the sea is through Pakistan - via Peshawar and onward to the port of Karachi. The road link through Pakistan has been a headache for Afghanistan, with Pakistan often holding up consignments meant for Afghan reconstruction. The Delaram-Zaranj highway opens up another option for Afghanistan via Iran. What is more, the overland option through Iran to the port of Chabahar is shorter than the one currently available through Pakistan.

The land route through Pakistan is the simplest way of moving goods between India and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan is reluctant to allow India access to Afghanistan via its territory, although such a move would earn it considerable revenue in the form of transit fees. This Pakistani stance has made the land route via Iran into Afghanistan all the more crucial for India. India hopes that the road link through Iran and Afghanistan will open up markets for its goods in Afghanistan and beyond in Central Asia. Hence the Indian interest in completing the Delaram-Zaranj highway.

Since 2003, India and Iran have been cooperating in developing the Chabahar port complex. Chabahar is closer to India than the existing port at Bandar Abbas. Iran has extended huge concessions to Afghanistan to attract it to use Chabahar port rather than the port that Pakistan is developing with Chinese help at Gwadar in Balochistan province.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan has fallen dramatically and that of India's has grown. None of the projects that India is involved with in Afghanistan undermines Pakistan's influence as much as the Zaranj-Delaram road link. This explains why Indians working on this project are particularly vulnerable to Taliban attacks.

Although India is keen to complete the project as soon as possible, it is behind the December 2006 completion date, with only a fourth finished. And the cost of the project, which was originally pegged at about $70 million, has almost doubled.

"The cost and time overrun has been because of the security situation," BRO chief Lieutenant-General K S Rao said recently, pointing out that the road runs through "the drug-cultivation belt where there is huge resistance to the work being done" by the BRO. The poor security situation has compelled BRO to work only eight hours a day. Initially, BRO worked on several stretches of road simultaneously, but after the killing of one of its workers in 2005, it was compelled to take up one stretch at a time to keep its workers together.

About 300 Indians work for BRO on the Zaranj-Delaram project. They are protected by about 70 personnel of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). However, ITBP personnel are not permitted to move beyond the living camps with weapons, so Afghan security personnel provide security at the work site.

BRO has drawn Delhi's attention to the need for more security, but even after a number of reviews the number of Indian security personnel has not been stepped up.

India is said to have put in a proposal to the Afghan government to send personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force to protect BRO workers, but there has been no movement on this. Pakistan is opposed to India assuming a larger security role in Afghanistan and there is concern in Delhi, too, that stepping up Indian personnel for protection will only attract more attacks from the Taliban.

India has therefore asked the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to step up security for Indian workers.

BRO is clearly working against all odds. And it is not just the security situation. Nimroz province, where the highway is being built, is tough terrain to work in and suffers extreme seasonal temperatures. It is said that during their occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets attempted road-building in this province twice but gave up.

India has indicated that it is made of sterner stuff, and for now the road-building continues, regardless of Taliban attacks and threats.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

The winter of the Taliban's content (Jan 25, '07)

Tribal tribulations in Afghanistan (Jan 19, '07)

How the Taliban keep their coffers full (Jan 10, '07)

In the land of the Taliban. A series by Syed Saleem Shahzad


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