Why J&K attacks show India needs a strong Afghanistan policy

For over an hour, the mangled body of  one of the men who'd tried to blow up the Indian consulate in Jalalabad lay on the street, surrounded by a sullen crowd of local residents.   Nine small children had died in the explosion, which took place while they were walking down the street on their way to religious studies classes in the local mosque. "Everyone was staring", a witness recalls, "as if they wanted to will the dead man back to life, so they could beat him to death again".  Then, a little boy in a  a light-blue shalwar-kameez emerged from the crowd, and calmly walked up to the dead body. He undid the drawstrings on his trousers, and urinated on the corpse.  The crowd cheered.

Three hours flight-time away from Jalalabad, United States diplomats are trying to hammer out a peace deal with Taliban negotiators at the plush Four Seasons Hotel on Doha's upmarket Corniche.  Last month, the Taliban shut down their new political office in Doha, following furious Afghan protests. But the talks have quietly continued. India's government, following the western lead, has been betting they'll lead to a peace deal before the United States draws-down its forces in Afghanistan next year.

Last night's murderous ambush in Poonch, where Pakistan army irregulars are thought to have organised the ambush which claimed the lives of five Indian soldiers, shows that hope is self-delusion.  The Poonch attack is among the first gusts of the storm brewing across the Hindu Kush to touch home.. The attack on the Indian consulate served notice to New Delhi that Afghanistan's future is more likely to resemble the Jalalabad street than the Doha Corniche. For India, the choices it now makes in Afghanistan will have critical consequences, especially in Kashmir— but the government is shutting its eyes, and hoping it all turns out to be a bad dream.


Afghanistan policemen walk at the site of a suicide attack in front of the Indian consulate in Jalalabad. AFP

For the first time since the near-war of 2001-2002, as Firstpost recently reported, losses of Indian security force personnel have risen relative to the precious year. The underlying reason is simple: as the United States prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, it is less less able to push Pakistan to rein-in jihadist groups operating against India.  For its part, the Pakistan army has good reason to resume low-grade hostilities against India, hoping to regain some legitimacy with elements of the jihadist movement who have turned against it in recent years. It hopes to install a client government in Kabul, evict India from the picture and resume its efforts to use covert warfare as a tool to tie down its increasingly powerful neighbour.

In December, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed told members of the secessionist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference that he intended to revive operations once the United States was out of Afghanistan. He publicly warned, in February, that "just as America had to run away, then India, you will have to leave Kashmir".

For weeks before the Jalalabad attack, government sources have told Firstpost, there had been multiple intelligence warnings on Indian diplomatic facilities in Kabul, Kandhahar and Jalalabad. Earlier this year, India Today's Saurabh Shukla has reported, a high-level Indian delegation led by Deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu suggested enhanced security measures for new ambassador Amar Sinha.

Indian and Afghan investigators believe the attack on the consulate only failed because of poor planning and reconnaissance. The three suicide bombers, driving an explosives-laden Toyota Corolla car, were stopped at an Afghan police checkpoint some 30 metres from the consulate gate.  Two of the men emerged from the car, and began to walk towards the checkpoint.  Even as they moved forward, though, the suicide-bomber inside the car detonated the vehicle —setting off the suicide vest on a second attacker. Police at the checkpoint opened fire, killing the third.

In several recent strikes, jihadist assault teams stormed their targets taking advantage of the shock and confusion caused by the initial attack— among them, the July attack on a DynCorp-run guest house which claimed the lives of Indian nationals John Martis, Sandeep Jilaji, Naveen Kumar Gurudi and Kaushik Chakraborty.  Near-identical tactics were used to strike Central Intelligence Agency offices and the Presidential palace in June— even as President Hamid Karzai was holding a press conference. For reasons we don't know yet, the Jalalabad attackers didn't get it right.

Like the two past attacks on India's embassy in Kabul, there are even odds that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence was involved: a murderous attack in 2008, the New York Times' Mark Mazetti and Eric Schmitt reported, was directly facilitated by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, while Afghan authorities blamed the 2010 strike on it.

In each of those past instances, India itself remained quiet, choosing not to make Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's pursuit of a grand peace bargain with Pakistan contingent on terrorism.

The strategy has failed— but there are things New Delhi can do to exert pressure. First as Firstpost revealed recently, President Karzai has given New Delhi a lethal-weapons shopping list, calling in Afghanistan's entitlements under the Strategic Partnership Agreement the two countries have signed. Afghanistan wants 105 millimetre artillery, as well as helicopters and transport aircraft— all second-hand equipment India can supply at a relatively low cost. India has so far denied the requests, fearing it will complicate the relationship with Pakistan and the United States. Instead, it has granted $100 million in economic aid to Afghanistan, in addition to $2 billion already committed. The aid has won friends— ordinary Afghans often tell visitors that while Pakistan gives them suicide bombers, India is giving them hospitals.  Yet, beefing up Afghanistan's armed forces will send Pakistan an important signal of intent.

Then, India needs to make clear it won't tolerate a peace deal with the Taliban that undermines Afghanistan's constitution and democracy. In 2014's presidential elections, the likely candidates of the major opposition blocs, the National Front and National Coalition, will likely be figures friendly to India— ranging from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah to Hanif Atmar. Karzai-linked candidates are more sympathetic to Pakistan —but more Indian military aid will lock them into the relationship.

Finally, India can adopt a more muscular posture on the Line of Control. Estimates suggest about a third of Pakistan's 500,000-strong army is committed to counter-terrorist operations in its North-West. Indian troops have given at least as good as they've got on the Line of Control, staging several eye-for-an-eye raids across the Line of Control to punish Pakistani attacks.  The government's been loath, though, to up the stakes, for fear for the ceasefire falling apart. If India reconsiders that strategy, though, it can threaten to make Pakistan more vulnerable to domestic terrorism by forcing it to pull troops eastwards.

The one option India doesn't have is to do nothing. For a decade now, India has ridden on the back of historically-anomalous geo-strategic springtime: the restraining presence of the United States, a war between Pakistan and the jihadists it long patronised, and a favourable international climate, driven by record economic growth. Now, events suggest, a harsh winter could again be descending.

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Updated Date: Aug 06, 2013 13:36:53 IST

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