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OPINION

Assassins from the Epicentre
KANCHAN LAKSHMAN

A suicide car bomber attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul on October 8, 2009, killing 17 persons and injuring more than 70 others. The car bombing ripped through a street in the city centre during the morning rush hour, killing and injuring bystanders, almost all of them Afghans. The highly-fortified mission’s wall was damaged and a watch tower destroyed in the blast, which occurred near the outer perimeter at around 0827 hours. India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad, said the "Indian Embassy was the target" but the suicide bomber failed to breach the security perimeter. While no Indian was killed in the attack, three Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel sustained minor injuries. This is the second terrorist attack on the Indian mission in 15 months, and the fourth attack in the embattled Afghan capital, Kabul, since August 2009.

The Taliban was swift in claiming responsibility for the attack. Quoting the Taliban Website, Al Jazeera channel identified the suicide bomber as Khalid. Al Jazeera also said Afghan Government and intelligence sources have indicated the involvement of a ‘foreign hand’ in the suicide bombing, describing it as "planned by a state and not a group of bandits", an unambiguous reference to Pakistan. The Afghan Foreign Ministry said the attack "was planned and implemented from outside of Afghan borders" by the same groups responsible for the July 7, 2008, suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy that killed 60 people, including 4 Indians.

Intelligence sources said the swiftness in claiming the attack was a ploy to keep the focus away from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, whose involvement in the July 2008 blast near the Indian Embassy has been confirmed by American, Afghan and Indian intelligence sources. The Taliban is simply attempting to camouflage and ‘protect’ its biggest benefactor in the region. The Afghan envoy to the US, Said T. Jawad, has clearly declared that the ISI was behind the latest attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul: "We are pointing the finger at the Pakistan intelligence agency, based on the evidence on the ground and similar attack taking place in Afghanistan."

India has, so far, made no attribution of blame for the suicide attack. However, India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao did mention in New Delhi after returning from Kabul that "the attack was clearly the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine Indo-Afghan friendship and do not believe in a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan." Pakistan and its militant-ISI network is the only force which fits this description.

It is still unclear at this point in time as to which Taliban faction had claimed responsibility for the attack, though there is a strong possibility, based on past trajectory and current intelligence, that the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a pro-Taliban warlord with close links to al Qaeda, and whose Pakistan-backed militants are battling US troops in eastern Afghanistan, had a role in the attack. The Haqqani network is, in fact, among the most likely suspects behind the recent string of suicide bombings in capital Kabul. While no militant group had claimed the July 2008 Indian Embassy bombing, India and the US had recovered substantial evidence which indicated that the attack was orchestrated by the Haqqani network at the behest of the ISI. Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is reported to have had a big role in executing that attack.

India remains an important target of the Pakistan-backed militant enterprise because of its large presence in Afghanistan. India has a huge assistance programme for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Since the Taliban regime’s defeat in 2002, New Delhi has pledged over USD 1.2 billion in aid to conflict-ravaged Afghanistan, making India the fifth largest donor nation to the country after the US, Britain, Japan and Canada.

The Indian involvement in Afghanistan is gradually increasing. There are approximately 4,000-5,000 Indian nationals working on several reconstruction projects across the war ravaged country. According to the Indian Embassy at Kabul, "India has undertaken projects virtually in all parts of Afghanistan, in a wide range of sectors including hydro-electricity, power transmission lines, road construction, agriculture and industry, telecommunications, information and broadcasting, education and health, which have been identified by the Afghan Government as priority areas for development." In the near future, reports indicate that India is contemplating building "an industrial estate which will generate much-needed employment for the local population. There is also talk of Indian involvement in food processing, which addresses rural farmlands and a long-term plan to inhibit poppy cultivation."

All of this and Pakistan’s more insidious ambition of regaining strategic depth in Afghanistan have rendered Islamabad insecure. Consequently, it has resorted to lobbying diplomatically against India’s presence in Afghanistan and using the Taliban to physically attack Indian interests. Plainly, Pakistan doesn't want any Indian presence in the region.

Over the years, Pakistan has persistently attempted to block India’s capacity-building initiatives in Afghanistan. Pakistan had, for instance, disallowed heavy equipment meant for an electricity project to travel through its territory. While this reportedly led to one of the largest airlifts in the region, India overcame other odds to build, in four years, a 202-kilometre transmission line to bring electricity to power-starved Kabul.

Since 2002, the Taliban has demanded the departure of all Indians working on various developmental projects in Afghanistan. These demands have been backed by targeted terrorist action against Indians. In the most recent of these, before the latest Embassy bombing, Simon Paramanathan, an Indian from Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, working for Italian food chain Ciano International, who was held captive by terrorists for nearly four months, was found dead on February 9, 2009. Before the July 2008 Embassy bombing, an ITBP trooper was killed and four others injured by the Taliban in the south-west Province of Nimroz on June 5, 2008. Two Indians, M.P. Singh and C. Govindaswamy, personnel of the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), were killed and seven persons, including five BRO personnel, sustained injuries, in a suicide-bomb attack in Nimroz on April 12, 2008. In the first-ever suicide attack on Indians in Afghanistan, two ITBP soldiers were killed and five injured at Razai village in Nimroz on January 3, 2008. On December 15, 2007, two bombs were lobbed into the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar Province. There was however, no casualty or damage. On May 7, 2006, an explosion occurred near the Indian Consulate in Herat Province, without causing any casualties. In April 2006, K. Suryanarayana, working with a Gulf-based company, was abducted and killed by Taliban militants, allegedly on orders from the ISI. Further, on February 7, 2006, Bharat Kumar, an Indian engineer working with a Turkish company, was killed in a bomb attack by the Taliban in the western province of Farah. On November 19, 2005, Ramankutty Maniyappan, a 36-year old BRO employee, was abducted, and his decapitated body was found on a road between Zaranj, capital of Nimroz, and an area called Ghor Ghori, four days later. Following his abduction, Taliban spokesperson Qari Yusuf Ahmadi had claimed that they had given the BRO an ultimatum to leave Afghanistan within 48 hours, failing which they would behead Maniyappan. Nimroz is the location, among others, of the strategic 215-kilometre Zarang-Delaram Highway Project executed by India. In addition, there were two attacks in November and December 2003 in one of which an Indian engineer was killed.

India and its role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan has always been opposed by the establishment in Pakistan, as well as by the Taliban–al Qaeda combine, and threat perceptions at India’s mission in Kabul, and at the multiplicity of Indian developmental projects in Afghanistan, have always been high. The vulnerability of Indian establishments in Kabul is further augmented by the fact that Kabul itself continues to be highly susceptible to terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings. As India’s presence in Afghanistan continues to grow, it is inevitable that Indian installations will come under sustained attack – both diplomatically and physically.

Over the past few months, both in the run-up to the Presidential elections and in the aftermath of an evidently controversial poll, the Taliban had vowed to augment their attacks, including suicide bombings, clearly demonstrating an intensification of the militant campaign. Indeed, the attack on the Indian Embassy comes within the context of spiraling violence in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported in September 2009, that Taliban leaders, aided by the ISI, are using their sanctuary in Pakistan to stoke a widening campaign of violence in northern and western Afghanistan. The Taliban’s leadership council, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar and operating around Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, was directly responsible for a wave of violence in the once relatively placid parts of northern and western Afghanistan, the US daily said, citing unnamed senior American military and intelligence officials. It cited American officials as stating that they believed the Taliban leadership in Pakistan still gets support from sections of the ISI. American officials, it noted, have long complained that senior Taliban leaders operating from Quetta provide money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan, where most of the nearly 68,000 American forces are deployed. The U.S. commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in an assessment leaked in the last week of September 2009, had also stated that the Afghan insurgency was clearly supported from Pakistan. "Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, linked to al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI". He identified the Quetta shura as the biggest threat to the US-led mission in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has clearly been working in tandem with the Pakistan Army and the ISI to combat NATO troops in the south of Afghanistan and simultaneously increase attacks against allied troops elsewhere in the country to ease pressure in the south. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates declared at the George Washington University on October 5, 2009, "The thing to remember about Afghanistan is, that country and particularly the Afghan-Pakistan border is the modern epicentre of jihad."

Amidst all of this entrenched subversion, Pakistan continues to spread false propaganda about the ‘large’ Indian consulates in Afghanistan being a source of insecurity for Islamabad. Dismissing a question on Pakistan’s perceived concerns about the activities of Indian consulates in Afghanistan, U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke said in April 2009 that, "Pakistanis have told me for a long time that India has hundreds of people in its consulate in Kandahar, in Afghanistan. I asked Americans and U.N. people how big the Indian consulate was in Kandahar and they said six or eight people. You know I am not worried about that." And further, in an interview with Geo News channel at the U.S. State Department in Washington, Holbrooke added, "Pakistan does not have to worry about India in Afghanistan. They need to worry about the miscreants in western Pakistan… Now if the Indians were supporting those miscreants that would be extraordinarily bad [and] really dangerous. But they’re not. There is no evidence at all that the Indians are supporting the miscreants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or North West Frontier Province or Waziristan. None." He noted that India has been playing a key role in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country: "India has given Afghanistan about $1 billion in assistance. They’re rebuilding the Parliament building, they’ve built a very useful road in the south-western part of the country leading down towards Iran. They’re training agricultural experts, they’re giving scholarships. The Indians have published a pamphlet on what they’re doing. I don’t think that should be cause of concern for Pakistan."

The dangers of anarchy within Afghanistan and across areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are predominantly sourced in Pakistan, to a far greater extent than in war-ravaged Afghanistan. The Taliban–al Qaeda combine and transnational jihadi groups based within Pakistan remain the principal instrumentalities of Islamabad’s response to India’s deepening engagement in Afghanistan. The Pakistan-backed terrorist network will surely attack more Indian targets in Afghanistan in the future. India, however, has clearly declared its intention not to waver from its commitment to reconstruction and capacity building in Afghanistan.

The writer is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India.


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