Pakistan warns India to 'back off' By M K Bhadrakumar
The Indian embassy in Kabul has been targeted for bomb attack for a second time
in the past 15 months. A least 17 people were killed in Thursday's attack, when
a car loaded with explosives rammed into the embassy's compound wall.
The Indian chancery is not far from the presidential palace and, ironically
enough, just across the road from the Afghan interior ministry. Needless to
say, the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, have shown they
have the capacity to hit anywhere, any time - a message that is already
However, since the target is the Indian embassy, there also has to be a
political message. In Delhi, the inclination is to suspect the hand of
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The security agencies have their
own strange codes to communicate
signals, and Thursday's attack does seem to convey some complicated signal,
which needs to be deciphered. Conceivably, the message is that India should
back off from any enterprise to expand its presence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has not hidden its deep disquiet that India still maintains consulates
in two key locations close to Pakistani border regions - Jalalabad and
Kandahar. It suspects that India uses these outposts for electronic
intelligence with an agenda of subverting Pakistan's stability and somehow
laying its hands on Pakistan's nuclear assets.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly warned on Monday while on a
visit to the United States that Indians "have to justify their interest" in
Kabul. He told Los Angeles Times that India's "level of engagement [in Kabul]
has to be commensurate with [the fact that] they do not share a border with
Afghanistan, whereas we do ... If there is no massive reconstruction [in
Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel
to Kabul, why do you have such a large [Indian] presence in Afghanistan? At
times, it concerns us."
Indeed, the top United States commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley
McChrystal underscored in his report last month to US President Barack Obama
that India was "exacerbating regional tensions" via its activities in
Afghanistan. He anticipated that Pakistan would take "counter-measures".
To compound matters, Indian officials have been needlessly stressing the
country's "soft power" in Afghanistan. Sure, India is a major donor country,
having committed to spend $1.2 billion as assistance in Afghanistan. Delhi's
aid program spans diverse fields such as education, health, power,
telecommunications, road-building and other areas and has gone a long way in
boosting India's profile and influence in Kabul.
Pakistan views the hyperactive Indian aid program in zero-sum terms as
essentially aimed at undercutting its influence. India is also not helping
matters. The discourse in Delhi is that India has deep and historical ties of
friendship with the Afghan people and in any case, who are these Pakistanis to
dictate what India should or shouldn't do?
India point blank refuses to concede that Pakistan has any "special interests"
in Afghanistan similar or anywhere near to what India claims to have in Nepal
or Sri Lanka. On the contrary, Indian commentators insist that Delhi has a
right and an obligation to be assertive in Afghanistan, considering the overall
stakes in the fight against terrorism and India's "burden" as a regional power.
The argument is flawless although the hubris is highly offensive.
A turning point is coming in the Afghan war. All eyes are trained on Obama's
new strategy. The discussion focuses on US troop levels, but it overlooks that
enormous tension has been building up in Pakistan in the recent weeks. The
Pakistani military seems to apprehend that Washington may be intensifying the
drone attacks on top Taliban leadership.
Washington's assassination campaign has lately met with stunning success.
High-value terrorist targets are getting killed. The campaign has been extended
from the tribal areas to the North-West Frontier Province. The American
ambassador in Islamabad recently hinted that the drones might soon come looking
for the Taliban shura (council) headed by Mullah Omar, who is believed
to be hiding in Balochistan.
The Americans seem to have developed intelligence resources for mounting the
drone attacks. While there is collusion between the CIA and the Pakistani
security agencies, the US also has intelligence-sharing with other countries,
Certainly, at some point in the conceivable future, the drone may get the top
Taliban leadership in its crosshairs. If that happens, Pakistan's so-called
"strategic asset" in the Hindu Kush will get destroyed and Islamabad's capacity
to project power into Afghanistan will drastically diminish.
Against such a backdrop, the ISI remains extremely wary of any Indian
intelligence penetration in the southern and southeastern regions of
Afghanistan. Glancing through the Pakistani media on any single day, it becomes
obvious there is virtual paranoia that the US is secretly colluding with India.
There is suspicion that the US is needlessly increasing its physical presence
in Pakistan. The corps commanders meting in the GHQ in Rawalpindi on Wednesday
took the unusual step of publicly airing the army's "concerns" over the
implications for "national security" of the conditionalities attached by the
Kerry-Lugar bill which the US Congress legislated recently for channeling
vastly increased American aid of US$1.5 billion annually to Pakistan.
"Warlords" to hunt down Taliban ...
Interestingly, Pakistani commentators with links to the Pakistani military
establishment have concluded that India had a hand in drafting the Kerry-Lugar
At the present moment, what really worries the Pakistani military is that
despite previous assurances to the contrary, Washington may finally accept the
new line-up taking shape in Kabul under President Hamid Karzai that includes
prominent Northern Alliance "warlords" who had worked closely with India in the
latter half of the 1990s and right until the US ousted the Taliban regime in
Arguably, these "warlords" could play a useful role for the US in stabilizing
Afghanistan and in the "Afghanization" of the war in a very near term in a way
that will significantly ease the pressure on North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) troops. Actually, this could be an Afghan variant of the Sunni
"Awakening" that the US implemented with considerable success within a short
timeframe in Iraq. Obama is indeed looking for ways of quickly retrieving the
security situation in Afghanistan and is working within a tight timeframe.
The Pakistani military worries about any proximity developing between the US
and the Northern Alliance "warlords". Needless to say, India's influence in
Afghanistan will take a quantum jump if the "warlords" are resurrected by the
US and put in charge of the Afghan security for battling a tenacious Taliban.
As longtime opponents of the Taliban, the "warlords" advocate a tough line
against the insurgency. As Mohammed Fahim, who is likely to be the
vice-president in Karzai's new government told New York Times, "My belief is
the time for peace is when we are strong and the Taliban are weak. Now would
not be a good time for Afghanistan to make peace."
Fahim said the government and coalition forces should hit Taliban bases inside
Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan. "The method of fighting should be studied
very carefully; there should be a new strategy," Fahim added. He is not opposed
to the continued foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, maintaining that it is
In short, if "warlords" are put in the driving seat of anti-Taliban operations,
the ISI may be compelled to suffer the ultimate humiliation of passively
witnessing the "warlords" systematically ravaging the Taliban cadres - as only
local Afghan militia can effectively do - and reducing them to a useless rabble
or, worse still, force the residual elements to flee to their mentors across
the border in Pakistan for protection.
…with Indian help?
India, of course, can do a lot to help the US and NATO in such a scenario by
training the militia operating under the "warlords" and also providing them
with weapons. In sum, without military deployment in Afghanistan, Delhi has the
capacity to play a decisive role in crushing the Taliban insurgency, which is
what makes the Pakistani military establishment extremely anxious in the
developing political scenario on the Afghan chessboard.
No wonder, the Pakistani military is watching with great anxiety any signs of
new thinking in Washington in the direction of co-opting the Northern Alliance
"warlords" in the fight against the Taliban. It is a close call. Opinion is
divided in Washington. The general perception of Afghan realities through
Western eyes makes the "warlords" appear a highly disagreeable constituency to
serve even as collaborators in the current desperate situation. There is a
serious mental block that needs to be overcome in the West in comprehending the
Afghan realities. Pakistan counts on that.
Secondly, Pakistan expects the Obama administration to be sensitive to its
concerns vis-a-vis an Indian presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, Washington needs
to walk a fine line by not annoying the Pakistani military even while tapping
into any help India can render. NATO has just urged Moscow to be a partner in
the "Afghanization" of the war despite the backlog of Soviet intervention in
Afghanistan. India, on the contrary, would be regarded as a benign friendly
power in Afghanistan. Yet, Washington has to make a choice in favor of
optimally getting the Pakistani military's help, which is crucial, rather than
co-opting an Indian sideshow.
All in all, taking into account the distinct possibility that a friendly
Karzai-led government will be in power in Kabul for the next five years, the
mood in Delhi is increasingly that India should adopt a "forward policy" toward
terrorism in the region rather than allow itself to be bled periodically by
Influential sections of Indian opinion are stridently calling for an outright
Indian intervention in Afghanistan without awaiting the niceties of an American
invitation letter. The fact of the matter is that there is tremendous
frustration that Pakistan has neither moved against the perpetrators of the
terrorist strikes on Mumbai last November nor folded up the terrorist
infrastructure on Pakistani soil. Islamabad's alibi that "non-state actors" are
responsible does not convince Delhi, either.
Interestingly, even as these maneuverings are edging their way to a climax in
the coming weeks, Delhi just hosted an international conference titled "Peace
and Stability in Afghanistan", which was attended by among others Lieutenant
General David W Barno, who heads the National Defense University in Washington.
Barno, an expert consultant on counter-insurgency, had a 19-month tour of
Afghanistan from October 2003 commanding the US and Coalition Forces. It so
happens Barno's tenure in Afghanistan was also the period the Northern Alliance
"warlords" look back with nostalgia as their halcyon days in the power
structure in Kabul.
The two-day conference in Delhi, which was addressed by top officials of the
Indian foreign ministry and the Prime Minister's Office, ended on Wednesday.
The Taliban struck at the Indian embassy in Kabul on Thursday. Maybe it is mere
coincidence, maybe it is not. In the world of John le Carre's spymaster George
Smiley, you can never tell.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.