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Should India Continue Its Present Course in Afghanistan?

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  • July 09, 2008

    The July 7 gruesome attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which resulted in the loss of over 40 lives including those of two senior diplomats, is clearly a high value symbolic attack directed at coercing India into scaling down its growing presence in rebuilding war ravaged Afghanistan. It is a clear reminder, following as it does a series of low and small scale attacks on Indians in previous months and years, that the Indian presence is continuing to hamper the interests of Pakistan which is bent upon regaining its lost ‘strategic depth’ in that country. The message is, thus, to compel India to leave Afghanistan or at least to scale down its presence and activities.

    The July 7 attack is in fact the fourth attack on Indian nationals in 2008 alone. The three previous attacks were on Indians working on the strategic 218 km Zaranj-Delaram road, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Significantly, this project, once operationalised, would reduce landlocked Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan for access to the sea through the Iranian port of Chabahar and provide India with an alternative route. Pakistan has so far denied trade and transit rights to India.

    Beginning 2002, the Taliban have been vociferously demanding the departure of Indians (presently around 4000) involved in developmental activity and these demands have been followed up with threats and action. The nature of attacks on Indian targets has varied from abduction and beheading to suicide attacks. For instance, the south-west province of Nimroz saw three separate attacks on Indian personnel – on June 5, April 12, and January 3, 2008. Around 400 Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel posted at the Indian embassy in Kabul and working with personnel of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) on the Zarang-Delaram road building project have increasingly faced the brunt of these attacks. According to unconfirmed reports, nothing less than 30 rocket attacks have been made on BRO personnel engaged in building the 124-mile stretch of the road across Nimroz.

    While the first direct attack on the Indian Embassy has predictably created a lot of speculation about the perpetrators of the attack, it needs mention that the four Indian consulates in Afghanistan have been subject to frequent grenade attacks in previous years. But these have not captured adequate media attention. In December 2006, two bombs were lobbed inside the Jalalabad consulate. Previously in May 2006, a major explosion rocked the Indian Consulate in the relatively peaceful western province of Herat.

    In the wake of the attack on the Indian Embassy, the Afghan interior ministry has unambiguously stated that the attack was carried out “in co-ordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region,” an obvious reference to the role of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While this statement needs to be viewed in the overall context of Afghanistan’s bilateral relationship with Pakistan, it is also a fact that India’s involvement in reconstruction of conflict ridden Afghanistan has not been to the liking of the Taliban-al Qaeda combine and their sponsors. Pakistan continually points to the presence of Indian consulates in the proximity of the Afghan-Pakistan border as a source of destabilisation in its territory. But it is also a fact that the activities of its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in Jalalabad have impeded greater aid delivery by the Indian Consulate there. The Indian Consulate in Jalalabad, in spite of the tremendous expectations of local Afghans, is compelled to keep a low profile and its ability to extend its developmental mandate has been severely restricted.

    The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating continuously. The Taliban have issued serious threats to escalate a campaign of suicide bombings to topple the Karzai government and drive away foreign troops. The death toll among foreign troops peaked in June 2008. Starting late 2007, there has been an increase in the number and intensity of suicide attacks inside Kabul and the neighbouring provinces. In February 2008, at a dog fighting event just outside Kandahar, a suicide bomber blew himself up killing about 80 people in the country's worst single bombing since 2001. One of the most daring rebel attacks in the city was on April 27 when militants opened fire on President Hamid Karzai just before his address at the country's largest annual military parade.

    In the aftermath of the July 7 attack, some Indian analysts have suggested an active role for India in the security affairs of Afghanistan. They characterise the Indian Defence Minister’s April 2008 ruling out of the option of sending troops to Afghanistan as “deficient strategic thinking”. Such analysis, to say the least, is based on a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of insurgency in Afghanistan. It also ignores the far reaching benefits flowing to the Afghan people from the activities that India has been engaged in and which in fact has troubled the Taliban and its sponsors.

    India being the fifth largest bilateral donor (US$750 million pledged), its projects are focused on long term development activities that involve capacity building among Afghans. Most of the international aid directed at short-term high-visibility projects gets dissipated by reliance on alternative mechanisms of delivery and lack of coordination with the Afghan government. Indian aid projects, on the contrary, are essentially directed at long-term development (electricity transmission, road construction, infrastructure development, industry, agriculture and others) while maintaining low visibility and active Afghan participation. Capacity building projects are intended to rebuild the human capital and include substantial investment in education (schools and scholarships), “on the job training” (Salma Dam project) and training assistance programmes (Afghan parliamentarians, bureaucrats and professionals). Indian projects have generated tremendous good will among the Afghans. India’s non-participation in military operations alongside multinational forces has actually helped it to retain the image of a “genuine ally’ among the Afghan people.

    India is essentially engaged in stabilising Afghanistan’s nascent democracy as well as in building a ‘land bridge’ connecting South with Central Asia. Both these objectives run contrary to Pakistan’s interest in regaining its ‘Strategic depth” in Afghanistan even as it aims to bleed India through terrorism and proxy war. Such a policy would thus invariably include striking at soft Indian targets as well as occasional high profile attacks like the one on the Indian Embassy. A stable Afghanistan also creates fears about the emergence of ‘Pashtunistan’ within the Pakistani establishment, which has relied on the Islamist card to keep the cause and the people divided. President Karzai’s statement last month that Afghanistan wanted to "rescue" the Pashtuns in Pakistan seems to have revived these fears.

    It needs to be understood that India, like many other countries, is operating in a highly insecure environment in insurgency-ravaged Afghanistan. In such a scenario, while attacks of the magnitude of the July 7 incident can be better avoided with adequate security preparedness, these certainly do not call for a dramatic reconsideration of India’s non-involvement in security operations. The Government of India should maintain its present course of minimal presence of its security forces personnel coupled with long term developmental activity that weaves aid delivery around greater Afghan ownership and participation. Sending troops to Afghanistan would merely serve as a red rag for the Taliban and its sponsors, even as it causes resentment among common Afghans at the introduction of more foreign troops into their land. Better security for Indian personnel and projects can actually be ensured by working in conjunction with Afghan security forces (including community policing) and other stakeholders interested in building a stable Afghanistan.