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Making the water boil in Afghanistan

Praveen Swami

Was the attack on the Indian mission in Kabul a one-off terror attack, or part of a calibrated Pakistani strategy?

“The water in Afghanistan,” Pakistan President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq told his spymaster Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan in December 1979, “must boil at the right temperature.”

Ever since a car bomb ripped through the Indian mission in Kabul on Monday, India’s National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, as well as top officials of the Research and Analysis Wing, the Intelligence Bureau and the Ministry of External Affairs, have all been focussed on just one question: was the attack a one-off strike by Islamist terror groups, or part of a focussed operation by Pakistan’s covert services to make the water in Afghanistan too hot for India to swim in?

Even though the Indian government has chosen not to point fingers in the wake of Monday’s bombing, Afghanistan has made clear that it sees no point in being coy. Its Interior Ministry has issued an official statement saying “this attack was carried out in coordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region.” Given that Afghanistan’s covert service, the Riyast-i-Amniyat-i-Milli, has produced dossier after dossier holding Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate responsible for a string of recent terror bombings, there is little doubt just who the unnamed intelligence service might be.

How plausible are these allegations?

Historical context

Answers lie in the quiet war India and Pakistan are waging in Afghanistan. Several commentators have suggested that India’s role in Afghanistan has something to do with its evolving strategic relationship with the United States. On point of fact, this assertion is ill-founded. From Afghanistan’s independence until the triumph of the Pakistan-backed mujahideen in 1992, New Delhi backed whoever was in power in Kabul.

India’s motives were simple. Ever since 1947, Pakistan had waged what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called “an informal war” to seize Jammu and Kashmir. By supporting Pakistan’s Afghan adversaries, India was returning the compliment.

Pakistan feared Kabul’s claims to represent all ethnic-Pashtuns. Afghanistan rejected the Durand Line, the colonial-era border that divides the Pashtun tribes. In 1973, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto even dismissed the government of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province on charges of conspiring to create Pakhtunkhwa, a united homeland for the tribes. Bhutto claimed the plot had the backing of Mohammad Daud Khan’s pro-Soviet Union regime in Afghanistan.

Islamabad, for its part, backed not a few plots of its own. Its covert services cultivated Islamists exiled by the Daud government, using religion to combat Pashtun nationalism. In July 1975, the ISI financed an attempted coup led by the future mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Even the 1992 mujahideen capture of Kabul did not fundamentally alter India’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Internal fighting between Hekmatyar and other mujahideen groups soon led to a situation where New Delhi was backing one or the other faction which found itself in opposition to Pakistan.

It was only with the rise of the Taliban that India, for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, found itself supporting an opposition group — the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. In 1996-1997, RAW initiated negotiations for the use of the Farkhor military airbase, 130 kilometres south-east of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. India operated a small military hospital at Farkhor but also used the base to ship high-altitude warfare supplies to the Northern Alliance, service the group’s Soviet Union-built MI-17 and MI-38 helicopters, and execute electronic intelligence-gathering operations.

RAW’s investments in supporting the Northern Alliance paid off. India’s political influence and intelligence capabilities grew significantly. For example, RAW is thought to have become the first intelligence service to have detected the so-called “Airlift of Evil” —the U.S.-sanctioned Pakistani evacuation of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda from the city of Kunduz in November 2002.

Not surprisingly, the annihilation of the Taliban after September 11, 2001, radically shifted the balance of power in Afghanistan in India’s favour. Indian consulates sprouted across Afghanistan, the vanguard of a massive aid and reconstruction programme that is still under way. It terrified Pakistan’s security establishment, which — correctly — saw India as a growing threat to its long-standing position as final arbiter of power in Afghanistan.

In July 2003, Islamabad officially expressed concern about Indian activities along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Allegations followed that India was printing fake Pakistani currency in Afghanistan, to fund cross-border terror strikes. Pakistani newspapers quoted officials as claiming that India’s consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar were supplying cash and weapons to terrorists in south Waziristan. India was also accused of inciting Nangrahar province warlord Hazrat Ali to shell Pakistani forward positions in the Mohmand Agency. Soon after, Pakistan also accused India of running terror networks out of several Afghan military bases, including Qushila Jadid, north of Kabul; near Gereshk, in southern Helmand province; in the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul; and at Kahak and Hassan Killie in western Nimruz.

Weeks after these allegations surfaced, India’s new consulate in Jalalabad came under grenade attack. Although no lives were lost in the September 1, 2003 strikes, India correctly understood them as a warning. Afghanistan investigators later arrested seven local residents for their role in the attack. They are believed to have confessed that they carried out the strikes on orders from intelligence handlers in Pakistan.

As the Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti-led Baloch insurgency against Pakistan escalated from 2004, Islamabad’s allegations grew more strident. In August 2004, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yusuf declared that India was running 40 terror camps targeting the province — this after months of claims that the Baloch Liberation Army did not exist! At the beginning of July 2006, Mushahid Husain, the chair of the Pakistan Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, asserted that RAW was “training 600 Balochis in Afghanistan.” He charged India with “propping up the Baloch war” and lashed out at the Riyast-i-Amniyat-i-Milli and the Afghan border police for liaising with RAW.

Were these charges true? It is hard to say. Credible allegations exist that India offered low-grade funding for Baloch insurgents in the wake of the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation — but then withdrew support to avoid destabilising Prime Minister Bhutto. It is probable, though not proved, that India also held out some financial support to Bugti and other Baloch nationalist leaders.

Having said that, such support could have been provided whether or not India was in Afghanistan — and some of Pakistan’s allegations have been farcical. Senator Hussain, for example, charged India with building up a military presence in Afghanistan. Just why Hussain was so alarmed by the presence of what he himself admitted was a “company strength” presence of Indo-Tibetan Border Police Guards — assigned to Afghanistan after the killing of an India road-construction engineer in November 2005 by the Taliban — is unclear. Some Pakistani newspapers have also reported that India has decided to send peacekeepers to Afghanistan at the behest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In fact, both the U.S. and the United Kingdom, ever-sensitive to actions which might hurt Pakistan, have been pressuring India to scale down its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan — let alone sending troops there.

‘Proxy war’

As the French scholar-diplomat Frederic Grare has pointed out, India and Pakistan are “fighting an emerging proxy-war in still war-torn Afghanistan.” “The real question,” he suggested in a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “is not whether it is happening but its actually intensity.” Grare argued that while there is “little doubt that India has a strong intelligence presence in Afghanistan, this does not necessarily mean it is conducting special operations. But even if it does so, are they militarily significant? The local situation in both Waziristan and Balochistan has been such that Pakistan would have been in trouble in the two areas, irrespective of whether India engaged actively in subversive operations in these regions.”

From the point of view of Pakistan’s covert services, though, time is running out. Despite the revival of its Islamist allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan is more estranged from the country’s political elite and its people than at any time in the past.

At the same time, India has succeeded in consolidating its presence. Farkhor, India’s only military base outside its territory, is thought to have been in a state of full operational readiness since last year, offering New Delhi’s armed forces unprecedented strategic reach. Afghanistan’s membership of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement will strengthen its trade ties with India, which is now the largest regional donor to that country’s reconstruction programme.

India has helped to rebuild roads — including the crucial Kandahar-Iran highway that will relieve Afghanistan of its dependence on Pakistan — airlines, and power plants, and provides support to the health and education sectors. Afghan civil servants, diplomats, and police officials are being trained by India and its elected representatives meet in a building India helped to construct.

In coming weeks and months, Afghan investigators — and India’s covert services —should have a clearer idea of just who carried out the bombings. If the ISI does turn out to have had a role in the enterprise, it is probable that more attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan will follow. In that event, the question before Indian strategists will be just what New Delhi can do to deter an enterprise intended to deny it the fruits of its hard-won influence in Afghanistan.

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