Six months after Indian engineer K. Suryanarayana was beheaded, security concerns for Indians in Afghanistan are at their worst. The main cause for worry is the resurgence of a more resilient Taliban.
The 78 suicide attacks this country has witnessed this year till October 8 have claimed 142 civilian lives, say NATO officials. Alien to such ‘sacrificial’ bombings till last year, Kabul has seen eight such attacks in just the two months of August and September. With a sharp increase in the detonation of ‘improvised explosive devices’, the Afghan capital is beginning to resemble its Iraqi counterpart, Baghdad.
Virendra Kumar Garg, Kabul team leader for Rail India Technical Engineering Services (RITES), one of the many Indian companies helping rebuild Afghanistan, articulates the siege mentality the Indians are fretting under. He says, “Things definitely changed for us in May when the Suryanarayana incident happened. Since then, we travel only from our guest house to the office and back. We never leave the house after dusk.”
Garg adds that after having witnessed excessive violence, many Indians wanted to leave the country three months ago. But after having weighed the economic benefits against the security concerns, they have somehow reconciled to staying on. “Most of these people would earn Rs 50,000 a month back home. Here, they earn $10,000 (about Rs 4.5 lakh). Give them the same opportunity in, say, an African country, and they would leave right away,” he says.
Sher Singh, Kabul office head for BSC-C&C, a joint venture specialising in road construction that employs over 400 Indians in Afghanistan, says, “Tensions are definitely on the rise. On an average, we hear about at least one incident a day in Kabul. That has led to a fear psychosis.
A rumour recently went around that the Taliban wanted to abduct an Indian so that they could bargain for the release of prisoners with the Afghan government."
Under such pressure, hearsays are fuelling the fear factor. An Indian diplomat in Kabul argues that while the increasing violence is a worry, the burgeoning Indian community need not be more worried than any other international contingent. He says, "An Italian journalist was captured the other day and released yesterday. A Turkish engineer and two German journalists were killed. There really cannot be a case for Indians being targeted in particular.
Besides, Indians perhaps benefit from their historical affinity with the Afghan people — we are not looked at as an occupying force."
This is also the logic Surendran Menon and Sanjeev Arora, managers of Indian Airlines in Kabul, dictate to themselves every day.
Menon says, "I risk my life as much in Kabul as I would in Mumbai. No place is perfectly safe. Besides, the insurgents are only targeting the Afghan police, the government, and the American and NATO troops - not Indians in particular." But Garg would rather be safe. He argues, "Even if Indians are not a target today, they could easily become a bonus in such times.
We are working in the Jalalabad area in the east, an insurgency hotbed. So we are taking all the necessary precautions like doubling security for our personnel."
When reminded that the Taliban is alleged to have links with Pakistan's ISI, Arora replies, "The security situation here is developing slowly, but surely." That is what all Afghans and the international community would want to believe - but would find hard to swallow right now.