by Dr. Deepali Gaur Singh - Kabulpress.org correspondent in India
The Indian presence in Afghanistan received another body blow in the early weeks of July with the bombing at the Indian Embassy, shattering, with it, the lives and dreams of many visa-hopefuls lined up outside. The third this year alone, it was one of the most lethal attacks on a 3,000-strong presence of Indians working here at various missions and development projects.
It was probably the first one in seven years of international troop presence, directed at a diplomatic mission. The death toll claimed 54 lives amongst whom were the Indian defence attaché, a political counsellor and two other Indian officials. The bulk of the victims were those lined outside the embassy for visas and people going about their daily chores in the neighbourhood market.
Believed to be one of the most guarded places in Kabul, the street houses the Afghan Interior Ministry which had already been targeted once in 2006 killing 13. The latest attack brings India’s growing role in rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan into focus as one of the largest aid providing countries with a non-military presence.
At a time when the new Pakistani administration is negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, and the fragile democracy is coming to terms with growing insurgent violence within its own borders, fingers have been pointed both overtly and covertly by Indian and Afghan authorities alike to the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) role in this particular attack.
Vox populi from the streets of Kabul seems to have echoed similar thoughts - thoughts that are an indication of a fatigued populace’s tired resignation to what has now become a daily occurrence assuming a larger significance only when a dear-one is lost.
The Afghan Interior Ministry has blamed the attack on support from “active intelligence circles in the region.” The last high profile attack was the assassination attempt on President Karzai in April which, too, was followed by thinly veiled allegations of the ISI’s involvement. Once whispers, these accusations have become loud noises reflected in the Afghan President’s outright threat on the fringes of the Donor’s Conference in Paris recently.
But more than anything else it really has been the frequency, sophistication and acuteness of the recent attacks that indicates to a more organized network with both logistical and operational expertise. And even as accusations and counter-accusations flew freely between the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan administrations amidst the rising body count from the previous attack another sophisticated remote-controlled bomb was discovered on a bus carrying road-workers of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in Nimroz.
While Pakistan’s administration at varying times has had a role to play in Afghanistan ever since the anti-Soviet jihad, it really has been the ISI that has strategised the real politik of the region vis-à-vis Afghanistan. From the logistics to the actual implementation of the jihad, from the procuring to the distribution of resources during the Afghan war, they, in collaboration with the CIA, are now known to have played an extremely important role.
The same was true during the internecine civil war when the mujahideen groups were at each others’ throats and subsequently when the Taliban came to control over ninety per cent of the country; Pakistan was among the only three countries in the world to recognise the militia group as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. This was around the time that India, after having supported the Soviet-propped regime, lost most of their influence in the country with their role restricted to the Afghan government-in-exile in New Delhi. The Kandahar hostage drama of 1999 leading to the release of the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s commander, Maulana Masood Azhar only deteriorated the relations between the two countries with the Indian government scalding its fingers during the last negotiations with the Taliban in Kandahar.
The American intervention in 2001, albeit with the support of their only friend in the region, changed much of that for the Indian government as well. For years having backed the opposition Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime the ouster of the militia group and installation of President Karzai in power changed the dynamics in the immediate neighbourhood.
With the Taliban gone, it actually opened doors to opportunities of rekindling cultural and historical ties between the two countries many of which had been captured on celluloid decades ago. And more recently, evidenced in the near-obsessive demand for Indian television soaps, which were eventually banned for being against Afghan culture. While Afghanistan has been an important agenda in Pakistan’s foreign policy it is now that the two sub-continental powers are directly competing for influence in Kabul. India has pledged about $850 million in reconstruction aid to the Afghan government.
India’s commitment is not just for building roads but also laying electrical lines. It is involved in a collaborative construction effort of a building which at a later date is going to house future Afghan Parliamentarians. The 218-kilometre Zaranj-Delaram road for which the BRO has been repeated targeted is nearing completion and would serve as an important connecting trade route to Iran for India and Afghanistan.
The Indian government with its Afghan counterparts is involved in a joint working committee which will assist the latter in issues of local self governance in line with the Panchayati Raj system in the country which is based in grass-roots democracy.
But more crucial to other national interests in the region might be the news of Afghanistan seeking India’s help in training its troops to fight insurgents, believed to have been made during Afghan Defence Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak’s visit to the country in April this year. While New Delhi maintains its stand of a non-military engagement in the country, the Indian government is believed to be considering training Afghan military personnel at Indian institutes.
In addition, Afghanistan is keen to get its air force personnel trained in India even as India is expecting an order from Kabul for its Advanced Light Helicopter. Afghanistan also hopes to get training and maintenance support from India for its military’s 10 Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships.
Incidentally, the Afghan minister’s itinerary included a visit to the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where Indian troops are fighting an insurgency which India believes is fuelled from across its western border. And all this comes amidst reports that the Afghan administration believes that the faster it builds its own national armed forces, the sooner NATO-led ISAF will be able to begin withdrawing its soldiers.
An Indian IL-76 transport plane flew to Kabul in the first week of July to retrieve the bodies of the four diplomats killed in the Indian embassy bombing amidst reports of the slain defence attache’s growing linkages with senior officers in the Afghan national army. He even accompanied the Afghan defence minister on his trip to India and was playing a key role in India’s military and logistical help to Afghanistan in countering prospects of Pakistan regaining influence there through a resurgent ‘Taliban-al Qaida-ISI’ nexus.
India has some army officers in Afghanistan to teach basic military field-craft and English skills to the Afghan army. Several military doctors have already been assisting at hospitals in and around Kandahar. But it is because of the increased use of IED in blasts and suicide bombings, as opposed to the earlier face-to-face confrontations, that Kabul is interested in sending its officers for specialised training to various defence institutes in India. Was the defence attaché then the direct target of the attack? Speculations are rife given the nature of the allegations.
Pakistan has constantly accused the Indian intelligence of mounting attacks into Baluchistan from inside Afghanistan, a charge denied by both Indian and Afghan authorities. The hot and cold relations between the two countries are evident in that while Pakistan allows the transit of Afghan goods through its territory for Indian markets it does not allow a reverse transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan.
As expected the bombing has already had regional ramifications. That relations between Indian and Pakistan have reached yet another wall was obvious in India pulling out of the Indo-Pak bilateral talks of their investigating agencies, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) of Pakistan meant to combat crime, human trafficking, drug abuse and stepping up cooperation among police forces of SAARC countries.
But for the Afghans the more serious issue is bound to be whether Afghanistan is yet again going to find itself at the vortex of regional politicking; and are its national interests going to be determined by relations between the perennial sub-continental rivals, India and Pakistan.