India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure

Kanchan Lakshman
11 July 2008

A suicide car-bombing in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul on the morning of 7 July 2008 killed at least fifty-four persons and wounded more than 140. The blast also destroyed cars and shops outside the building. It seems that the suicide-bomber launched the attack after trailing two embassy vehicles as they were entering the premises. The highly guarded embassy is located on a busy street in central Kabul near Afghanistan's interior ministry.

The dead included four Indian nationals: the military attaché Brigadier R Mehta, press counselor V Venkat Rao, and two Indian paramilitary troopers (Ajai Pathania and Roop Singh) guarding the embassy.

A statement from Afghanistan's interior ministry said that the suicide-attack was carried out in coordination with "a regional intelligence service" - clearly hinting at the involvement of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The establishment in Pakistan, and the Taliban / al- Qaida "combine" in that country, have always opposed India's role in the reconstruction of a war-ravaged Afghanistan; as a result, the awareness of threat at the Kabul embassy, and in relation to India's many Indian developmental projects in Afghanistan, has always been high.

India's role

Since 2002, the Taliban has demanded the departure of all Indian personnel working on various projects with the Afghan people and government for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country. There are approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals working on several such projects across Afghanistan. India has committed aid to Afghanistan in the 2002-09 period amounting to $750 million, making it the fifth largest bilateral donor after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.

Kanchan Lakshman is a research fellow in the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He is also assistant editor of the journal Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution

A longer version of this article appears in the South Asia Intelligence Review

These projects and personnel have offered the Taliban a rich array of choices in attempting to prosecute its demand for Indian withdrawal. It has conducted multiple attacks against Indian targets. Many of these have been concentrated in the southwest province of Nimroz (which is at the heart of the strategic Zarang-Delaram highway project being built under the auspices of the the Indian army's Border Roads Organisation (BRO). They include the abduction and murder of Ramankutty Maniyappan, an employee of BRO in November 2005; the killing of two soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) on 3 January 2008 in the first-ever suicide-attack on Indians in Afghanistan; and the killing of another ITBP trooper on 5 June 2008.

The vulnerability of India's initiaitves and presence in Afghanistan - and now, evidently, Kabul itself - is part of the increasing susceptibility of the Afghan capital to terrorist operations. The embassy attack is part of a pattern here that includes (on 27 April 2008) an assault on an annual military parade about to be addressed by President Hamid Karzai, which killed a legislator and two other Afghans.

This in turn reflects the augmenting violence in Afghanistan as a whole (see Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege", 10 July 2008). More United States and Nato troops were killed in June 2008 than in any other month since military operations began in the aftermath of 9/11. The monthly total, forty-five, for the first time exceeded coalition fatalities in Iraq. This distressing trend includes a rise in civilian deaths too; a report by John Holmes, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, states that the number of documented civilian deaths in the first six months of 2008 (698 in all) represents an increase of 62% compared with the same period in 2007. The UN "blamed the actions of US, NATO and Afghan Government forces for 255 deaths and anti-occupation insurgents for 422."

The jihadi prospect

Afghanistan's struggle to overcome those seeking a restoration of Taliban rule is expected to be a long haul, much more than what was imagined even in 2007. Major-General David Rodriguez, head of the US-led coalition force, suggested in February 2008 that it will take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. But the idea that the forty-nation International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and parallel US military deployments can ultimately be successful is being increasingly questioned - and Pakistan is at the heart of the doubts.

Also on India's security issues in openDemocracy: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "Delhi's bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia" (2 November 2005)

Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

Suhas Chakma, "India's war with itself" (2 April 2007)

Animesh Roul, "Al-Qaida in India" (15 August 2007)

Ajay Sahni, "India: states of insecurity" (28 November 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)

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 the debilitated state of Afghanistan itself. Nato has said that successive peace deals between the Pakistan government and the Taliban have - as a result of "decreased activity by the Pakistani army on the Pakistan side of the border" - led to increased violence within Afghanistan.

The Taliban / al-Qaida combine has evidently regrouped rather well, particularly in the rural Afghan provinces dominated by the Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Islamabad has evidently allowed militant elements to regroup on Pakistani territory and to launch attacks across the border. Despite selective military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is no indication that Pakistan intends to cut the Taliban's lifeline on its soil.

Indeed, two groups of local Taliban - the Mullah Nazir group of South Waziristan and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group of North Waziristan - reportedly reached agreement on 30 June 2008 to join forces and fight against the Nato troops in Afghanistan. Their spokesman, Mufti Abu Haroon, disclosed that the Taliban militants would go to Afghanistan to fight Nato troops under the command of Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Pakistan's deals with the militants and other strategic inconsistencies have amplified the already extensive insecurity in Afghanistan. Pakistan's own multiple internal convulsions notwithstanding, its capacities for power-projection into Afghanistan have not been significantly undermined, and it remains the case that it shares strategic goals with the Taliban in this theatre.

For his part, Hamid Karzai in some desperation has threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to fight Taliban militants within Pakistan. In accusing Pakistan of sheltering most of the militants involved in recent incidents in the Garmser district of Helmand province, he told a press conference on 15 June 2008, that Afghanistan had the right to self-defence; since militants cross over from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same."

Meanwhile, after the Kabul embassy bomb India's ministry of external affairs reiterated New Delhi's determination to continue to support Afghanistan's development, and stated that "(such) acts of terror will not deter us from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan." Afghan foreign minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, declared further: "India and Afghanistan have a deep relationship between each other. Such attacks of the enemy will not harm our relations."

It is evident that the Taliban / al-Qaida combine and the transnational jihadi groups based within Pakistan remain the principal instruments of Islamabad's response to India's deepening cooperation with Afghanistan; at the same time, ISI-supported terrorist groups remain Pakistan's principal tool of policy-projection in the Indian province of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite the country's rising internal difficulties and contradictions, the Pakistani inner establishment's deep engagement with Islamist extremism and terrorism is far from over.

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