Now it's war against India in Afghanistan
By Sudha Ramachandran
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
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
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
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
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
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