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The July 7 Attack in Kabul and India’s Search for a Response

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 18, 2008

    The July 7 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul which left 58 people dead including four Indians and more than 140 wounded was a highly provocative act. Those responsible for the attack are well known, and their objectives are also not a matter of speculation. It is understood that the Indian government should be taking far more stringent security measures to minimise the recurrence of such attacks on its embassy, consulates, and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. It is clear that forces inimical to India’s presence in Afghanistan would continue to mount such offensives in times to come. There has been a clear-cut incremental pattern to the targeting of Indian interests in Afghanistan. The July 7 attack is neither the beginning nor the end. As anti-India entities adopt a more confrontationist approach, India is likely to come under increasing pressure to do more to protect its interests in Afghanistan.

    Interestingly, the issue of pro-Taliban and pro-ISI elements having infiltrated the government security apparatus has been completely ignored. The high-profile nature of the recent Taliban-led suicide attacks, especially in Kabul city, clearly points to the growing influence of anti-government elements in Afghan security structures. The assault on the Indian embassy was notably well co-ordinated and executed with professional precision. It is suggestive of the possible connivance between the Taliban and its sympathizers within the local Afghan security apparatus. Otherwise, it is difficult to believe that a car packed with reportedly 100 kilograms of explosives could reach the gates of the Indian embassy located close to the Afghan interior ministry in one of the most secure areas of Kabul without being intercepted by local security forces. The brazen April 27 attack on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other foreign dignitaries attending the national day parade in Kabul had clearly shown the growing presence of the Taliban in Kabul and their linkages within Afghan security forces. Given this scenario, the Taliban in all likelihood will continue to raise the profile of their attacks in and around Kabul commensurate with their rising disruptive power in general and their psychological warfare against the Afghan government and the Western forces in particular.

    There has been a temptation among some Indian analysts to suggest that it is time for India to send its forces to Afghanistan. Their views disregard the prevalent regional dynamics and the history of modern Afghan wars which have often left intervening/invading foreign armies puzzled by their resilience and vigour. In this regard, it would do well to remember a popular Afghan proverb, keep your friendships, but don’t touch the problems of your friends.

    Since India has decided to stay the course in Afghanistan, it is important to take a long-term view as to how New Delhi can contribute to strengthening Afghan security. Rising Taliban will remain a critical security and foreign policy challenge for India in the years to come. Apart from investing in the people of Afghanistan, India, along with like-minded countries, needs to play a more robust role in augmenting the capability of Afghan security forces to withstand and subsequently counter the threat emanating from across the Durand Line.

    It is known that the Afghan government and the West have been keen on India playing a greater role in training the Afghan National Security Forces. During his week-long visit to India in April 2008, Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak had clearly asked for Indian assistance to train the Afghan army in counter-insurgency operations and ways and means to check cross-border terrorism. Since sending a large contingent of Indian military trainers and instructors to Afghanistan is not possible, formal bilateral arrangements can definitely be made for the training of contingents of Afghan army in India. It should be noted here that Afghan police personnel have been undergoing training in India for sometime now. Since the weaponry of the two countries is primarily of Soviet origin, India definitely has an edge over some of the Western countries involved in training and mentoring the Afghan forces. The language and cultural barriers too would be less as compared to the problems that Western military trainers often face.

    At the same time, it would be in its long-term interest for India to avoid being over-identified with the policies of the United States in Afghanistan. It is to be noted that the US has invested too much in Pakistan and continues to do so as part of its larger strategy in south-central Asia. A relatively independent public approach towards Afghanistan seems to hold a better chance for India to further deepen its constituency within Afghanistan. More and smaller development projects based on local community participation will help India build bridges with the Afghan people. As for the large development projects, India should seek joint ventures with other Asian countries. In the above context, India can also make an open official offer to the Pakistan government to work jointly and co-operate in Afghan reconstruction. Pakistan’s response to the offer will go a long way in testing its sincerity towards the stability of Afghanistan which it keeps reiterating from time to time.

    What is urgently required at the moment is a stronger Asian initiative to help stabilize Afghanistan. At a multilateral level, India can take the lead in bringing together some of the resourceful and stable Asian countries on a common platform with the purpose of accelerating reconstruction and peace building in Afghanistan. With the West finding it increasingly difficult to carry Afghanistan through its transition, such a grouping can make a coordinated effort to assist Afghanistan in capacity building/human resource development, building institutions of governance and critical infrastructure. The grouping should work in full consultation with Kabul and in tandem with international financial institutions. As members of the proposed grouping, diverse Asian countries such as China, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could to an extent blunt the Islamist credentials and anti-West propaganda of the Taliban and their foreign allies.

    However, Pakistan is likely to remain a difficult proposition in any such cooperative venture to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. In view of the prevailing leadership crisis in Pakistan and increased Taliban activism in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Western forces are entering a phase of more intense confrontation along, and may be, across the Durand Line. With prominent Asian countries, including Asian Muslim states, working jointly in Afghanistan, it would be easier to counter Pakistan’s clandestine support for the Taliban. A long-term commitment of such a grouping in Afghanistan can also go a long way to strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan government and weakening the influence of regressive forces. It will also act as a pressure on Pakistan to forego its policy of exporting religious extremism and terrorism to neighbouring countries, and will strengthen the moderate and progressive voices within Pakistan. It is in Pakistan’s own interest to start cooperating with Kabul and other countries involved in bringing peace and stability to the region, before it is caught up in a much wider conflict.

    As for the detractors of India’s growing role in Afghan reconstruction, it is high time they realised that India is there to stay in Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that India was among the last countries to have closed down its embassy in Kabul some 12 hours before the Taliban entered the city on September 26, 1996. The very fact that the Indian diplomatic mission in Kabul continued to function while various Afghan factions vying for power incessantly bombarded the city, was testimony to the significance of Afghanistan in India’s foreign policy. India has once again displayed the same determination when its embassy in Kabul became operational within days of the deadly July 7 attack. Meanwhile, given the diverse agendas of the various powerful actors involved in the Afghan conflict, India needs to watch its step as it treads through the complex labyrinth of politics in and around Afghanistan.