Seven Indian engineers along with a local colleague were abducted earlier this month in Baghlan province in Afghanistan. On May 6, the Indians and their Afghan driver were stopped by unknown gunmen while on their way to a project site and taken hostage.
The kidnapped engineers were working for KEC India on power projects for Afghanistan’s national electricity supplier, Da Afghanistan Breshana Shirkat (DABS), in Baghlan province, a key region for Afghanistan’s power supply grid.
Although no insurgent group has claimed responsibility, provincial governor Abdul Hai Namati told local media that officials were conducting meetings with tribal elders in the area to negotiate the release of the engineers. He added that they were in “talks with the Taliban to ensure the safe release of foreign engineers.”
Local reports suggest the men were being held in Dand-e-Shahabuddin area, which is known to have a heavy Taliban influence.
While Indian officials did not confirm any details, they did tell Asia Times that they were working to get the men released. “We are in touch with the Afghan government and concerned agencies and working towards a safe release,” an Indian embassy staff member said.
In Baghlan province, power projects and power lines that run through the region have come under heavy Taliban attacks in the last few months. Earlier this year, the Taliban blew up electricity pylons on two occasions, in March and April, leaving the Afghan capital of Kabul in darkness for days.
The militant group has also targeted government workers and engineers, preventing them from making repairs to damaged infrastructure.
“Security in Baghlan is deteriorating and the province is under risk, especially the highways,” Safdar Muhseni, the chief of the Provincial Council of Baghlan, told Asia Times. The province not only provides passage to electricity lines from neighboring countries, but the roads passing through Baghlan connect the north of the country with the capital and are important trade routes.
“The Taliban presence can be seen 50 meters from main roads, making it very easy for them to kidnap travelers for ransom,” he added.
Meanwhile, Muhseni also shared some of the complexities of the security arrangements in the province between government forces and insurgents. “The local ministry officials have a deal with the local insurgent groups like the Taliban to allow them to continue running these projects,” he claimed.
“There was already such a deal in place when the Indians started their work,” he said, speculating the kidnapping could be a result of some fallout of the arrangement.
Muhseni also claimed that during the inauguration of the Khuwaja Alwan power substation, he brought the matter of security to the attention of Minister Eng Ali Ahmad Osmani.
“I told him about the growing security issues here, but [the minister] told me that we can’t run this project by placing security troops there. He also assured me that the Taliban does not have a problem with [the project],” he said.
Despite billions of dollars of investment in power infrastructure in Afghanistan, the country remains heavily dependent on external sources of power. India, among other international partners, have invested in several energy projects that could help the country attain self-sufficiency.
The Taliban has offered “protection” to all developments of national interest, including several major power projects.
“The Islamic Emirate views this project as an important element of the country’s economic infrastructure and believes its proper implementation will benefit the Afghan people. We announce our cooperation in providing security for the project in areas under our control,” the Taliban said during the inauguration of the Afghan phase of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, or TAPI.
However, only last week the militant group attacked and killed five mine-clearance workers in Kandahar who were working on the pipeline project.