On August 3, a bombing outside the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province left nine dead and 21 injured in the first major attack since the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
According to reports, guards at a checkpoint outside the consulate stopped the car carrying three attackers, triggering a gunfight involving two of them. The third attacker detonated the explosives, which badly damaged a mosque and dozens of residential and commercial establishments. According to India’s External Affairs Ministry, the bomb failed to breach the consulate compound and no Indian officials were wounded or killed. Meanwhile, local police confirmed that all the casualties were Afghan civilians, mostly children.
The attack on the Indian consulate is the third on an Indian diplomatic post to take place in Afghanistan in the last five years. In both 2008 and 2009, the Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed, killing several Indian officials and scores of Afghans. U.S., Afghan and Indian officials believed those attacks were carried out by elements supported by Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan denied this charge.
Those denials notwithstanding, suspicion over the Jalalabad attack has once again turned to Pakistan. Islamabad has long been wary of India’s growing influence in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. The Indian government used the opportunity to regain its foothold in Afghanistan, stepping up its diplomatic engagement and has since emerged as one of Afghanistan’s largest regional donors. All told, India has committed more than $2 billion in economic aid to the country in the past decade.
Moreover, as one of the staunchest supporters of President Hamid Karzai’s government and of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the Indian government is seeking both to advance its security interests (via the crackdown on terrorist safe havens) and to boost its access to Central Asia’s vast, largely untapped energy resources.
The Pakistani government and the country’s military establishment take a dim view of the Indian government’s plans. Indeed, Pakistan’s army has been repeatedly accused of favoring a weak central government in Kabul, dominated by a pliant Taliban, in a bid to secure its own strategic depth. India’s growing business and security interests coupled with Indian military training of Afghan soldiers make it particularly vulnerable to attacks in Afghanistan from insurgents.
No wonder then, that India has been especially worried by the prospects of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and the resulting security vacuum in the country. Plans to leave a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have been thwarted by the suspension of negotiations on a bilateral U.S.-Afghan status-of-forces agreement that would govern American military personnel remaining in the country after the completion of the security transition in 2014.
The suspension followed U.S. efforts to begin peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital city of Doha. The move was met with anger in Kabul, amid concerns that the Afghan government was being marginalized in the process. Amid increasing tensions, the U.S. is said to be mulling a “zero option”, whereby all troops are withdrawn after the 2014 deadline.
The withdrawal is almost certain to worsen the security situation in Afghanistan. It will create a security vacuum that will be accompanied by widespread jockeying among regional governments seeking to increase their influence in Afghanistan thereby undermining Afghan sovereignty.
More broadly, attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan highlight the tenuous ties between India and Pakistan. While the election of Nawaz Sharif augurs well for the fledgling India-Pakistan peace process, Afghanistan will continue to remain a bone of contention between the two South Asian states.