Now it's war against India in Afghanistan

Posted in Terrorism , Broader Middle East , India , Afghanistan | 09-Jul-08 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

Afghan policemen stand alert at the site of a suicide attack in front of the Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7.

BANGALORE - The suicide bomber who crashed an explosive-laden car into the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul on Monday not only killed 41 people and injured more than 140, he sent a powerful message to Delhi that its significant presence and growing influence in Afghanistan through its reconstruction projects are now in the firing line.

Among the dead were four Indians, including Defense Attache Brigadier R D Mehta, diplomat Venkateswara Rao and two guards at the embassy, who were personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police - a paramilitary outfit. The attack is said to be among the deadliest in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The Indian Embassy stands near Afghanistan's Interior Ministry in a busy part of Kabul. Intelligence sources had apparently warned of an attack on the mission this week and security had been upgraded. Yet the suicide bomber and his explosive-filled vehicle were able to reach the gates unhindered.

The attack comes within the context of spiraling violence in the country, including the capital. More US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops were killed in Afghanistan in June than in any other month since military operations began in 2001. Forty-five soldiers, including 27 American, 13 British, two Canadian, one Polish, one Romanian and one Hungarian, were killed during the month. Coalition fatalities in June in Afghanistan, for the first time, exceeded coalition fatalities in Iraq.

In April 27, militants opened fire on President Hamid Karzai at an annual military parade in Kabul, killing a legislator and two other Afghans. Last month, in a brazen attack, the Taliban stormed a jail in Kandahar, freeing hundreds of prisoners.

The Taliban issued a statement denying responsibility for Monday's attack. But few in India or Afghanistan are convinced. The Taliban generally claim responsibility for attacks against international or Afghan troops and deny their hand in attacks in which victims are mainly Afghan civilians. Most of the victims of Monday's blast were Afghan civilians; many had lined up for visas to travel to India.

Indian experts say that the needle of suspicion points to the Taliban and its backers in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's intelligence agency. This is the view in Kabul as well. While Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said the "attack was carried out in coordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region" - alluding to the ISI - Karzai said the bombing was the work of the "enemies of Afghanistan-India friendship", an implicit reference to Pakistan.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was quick to deny the allegations, saying that Pakistan "needed a stable Afghanistan".

India and Afghanistan enjoy a close relationship nowadays, a matter that irks their common neighbor and traditional foe, Pakistan.

India and Pakistan have vied for influence in Afghanistan for decades. In the 1990s, with the Pakistan-backed Taliban in power, Islamabad's influence peaked. Then in a reversal of fortune, India, which backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during the years the Taliban were in power, saw its fortunes improve in Kabul, even as Islamabad's influence touched a nadir.

With its old friends in the Northern Alliance in power and an India-educated Karzai at the helm, India's influence has grown significantly in recent years.

It has pledged about US$750 million to Afghanistan's reconstruction since 2002 and is today the fifth-largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany. This places India among the big players in the country.

India is involved in an array of projects, ranging from providing food to children to improving infrastructure. It is constructing the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram road, the Afghan parliament and a power transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a substation in Kabul. It is repairing and reconstructing the Salma Dam in the western province of Herat at a cost of $109.3 million and building telephone exchanges linking 11 provinces to Kabul. It has supplied hundreds of buses and mini-buses. India is training bureaucrats and is providing over 3,000 Afghans with skills to earn a livelihood in carpentry, plumbing and masonry.

Hundreds of Afghans have been given scholarships to study in India. India is providing food assistance in the form of high-protein biscuits to 1.4 million school children daily.

"India's reconstruction strategy was designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage and, of course, undercut Pakistani influence," the BBC quoted analyst Ahmed Rashid as saying,

India's role in road construction is improving its access to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia. The Zaranj-Delaram project, for instance, will run from the Iranian border to Delaram, which lies on Afghanistan's Garland Highway. The Garland Highway connects several of the country's key cities. India can offload shiploads of goods at Iran's Chabahar port and then send the consignments overland through the Zaranj-Delaram highway and the Garland Highway to cities across Afghanistan.

Approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals are working on reconstruction projects across Afghanistan.

Pakistan, which has denied India overland access to Afghanistan, is annoyed that the road construction will provide India with a land route to Afghanistan. India believes that the ISI has used the Taliban to strike at Indian activity in Afghanistan. India's road projects - Zaranj-Delaram in particular - have come under repeated Taliban fire, the most recent being a suicide attack in April that left seven people, including four Indians, dead.

India's engagement in Afghanistan has helped it exert its soft power in Afghanistan. It is seen as a country that is working at changing the daily lives of Afghans, committed to capacity-building of Afghans rather than engaged in winning contracts for Indian business. India is seen as contributing to the building of democracy in Afghanistan.

Then there is the popularity of Bollywood films and Indian television soaps in Afghanistan, which have won India many hearts in this country - and the Taliban's ire.

Pakistan has done its utmost to restrict Indian influence. It put its foot down on allowing Indian troops into the country, but contrary to Islamabad's expectations, this might have worked in India's favor.

India's engagement in Afghanistan has not been tainted by military operations gone awry. Unlike other powers in Afghanistan, whose reconstruction work has been sullied by indiscriminate bombing and killing of civilians, India is seen as working for the Afghan people.

So great is Pakistan's concern of India's presence in Afghanistan that it raised strong objections to India setting up consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad. It has accused India of using these consulates, which border Pakistan, to support "terrorist activities" inside Pakistan. The Indian consulate at Jalalabad has been a target of at least a couple of grenade attacks, the most recent last December.

Monday's attack was the first time the Indian Embassy has been targeted since the fall of the Taliban. But the embassy building was in the crosshairs of the Taliban even in the 1990s. The building was a "favorite target of the Taliban" between 1996 and 2001, when it was in power.

"So intense were the rocket attacks on the embassy at a time when the Taliban were inching closer to Kabul waging bloody fights against the Northern Alliance forces led by legendary leader [Ahmad Shah] Massoud that [Indian] officials had decided to construct a heavily fortified bunker right inside the embassy premises. So specific was the targeting of the Indian Embassy that the officials used to leave their cars and other vehicles parked inside the Indonesian Embassy, which is next to the Indian Embassy, to keep them safe from the Taliban rockets," reports the Times of India.

The embassy was closed on September 26, 1996 - a few hours before the Taliban entered Kabul, to be reopened on December 22, 2001 - the day Karzai was sworn in as president.

Over the past few years, the ISI and its surrogates in the Taliban have sought to cut India's influence through intimidation and attacks on Indian engineers and construction workers. Now with the attack on the embassy, they have signaled that they are stepping up their battle against India. It marks a major escalation in terrorist attacks not only against India's presence in Afghanistan but against New Delhi's Afghan policy.

India has reiterated that the attacks will not weaken its mission to help in Afghanistan's reconstruction. In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs commented, "Such acts of terror will not deter us from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan."

And already there are calls in India for troops to be sent to Afghanistan. An editorial in the influential English daily, India Express, says, "After the Kabul bombing, India must come to terms with an important question that it has avoided debating so far. New Delhi cannot continue to expand its economic and diplomatic activity in Afghanistan, while avoiding a commensurate increase in its military presence there. For too long, New Delhi has deferred to Pakistani and American sensitivities about raising India's strategic profile in Afghanistan."

A military presence in Afghanistan might increase India's profile and add to its stature as a growing power in the region. But it will end up being bracketed with the Americans in Afghanistan, an image it would do well to avoid. It would work against the country's long-term interests in the region, jeopardizing the enormous goodwill it has earned to date.

Troops in Afghanistan would push India into the Afghan quagmire. This might be what the ISI was gunning for when they attacked the Indian embassy on Monday.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.