By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 11, 2009
NEW DELHI, Oct. 10 -- Across Afghanistan, hundreds of Indian workers and engineers are repairing disintegrated roads and constructing highways. India is building the country's new parliament building. It is running medical missions and training Afghan police officers, diplomats and civil servants, part of a hearts-and-minds offensive to strengthen old ties in a rough neighborhood.
Like archrival Pakistan, India sees Afghanistan as a strategic prize, but its efforts to establish a big footprint there have been set back twice in 15 months by suicide bombings aimed at its widening presence.
In some ways, India and Pakistan have been waging a quiet battle inside Afghanistan, and experts say the latest attack, on Thursday outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, is bound to intensify that rivalry.
Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, has long had deep ties with elements inside Afghanistan, but large numbers of Indian intelligence operatives are also in Afghanistan to counter Pakistan's influence and to act as a check on Taliban militants, Indian and Pakistani security experts say.
"This is where the real proxy war between the two countries is being fought," said Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author of "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia."
Intelligence agencies blame the Inter-Services Intelligence, better known as the ISI, for a 2008 blast at the Indian Embassy that killed 58 people, including the defense attache. Pakistan denied the assertions.
India's active opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan dates to the 1990s, when the New Delhi government joined Iran and Russia in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Islamist movement. Now, India is spending $1.2 billion in health-care, food and infrastructure aid to Afghanistan, its largest foreign assistance program.
The bombing comes as hostilities between India and Pakistan have intensified after a November terrorist attack in Mumbai, which killed more than 170 people and brought India's financial capital to a three-day standstill. Indian authorities said all 10 attackers were from Pakistan. The Mumbai siege rolled back at least five years of diplomatic progress between the two countries.
The Kabul embassy blast, which left 17 dead, came a day after Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced that relations between India and Pakistan were thawing and that they could be getting ready to resume peace talks. A Taliban spokesman asserted responsibility for the attack, saying the embassy was the intended target. India has not yet assigned blame.
Experts say there is a growing rift between Pakistan's civilian government and its military, and between the military and the ISI. Those apparent rifts are not lost on Indian diplomats, who realize the limits of Pakistan's government to see through diplomatic promises.
Many in India note that Pakistan's government has been seeking some cooperation with New Delhi, leaving Pakistan's military services and the ISI outside of that diplomacy.
"The latest embassy bombing is going to cast a very dark shadow over talks between India and Pakistan," said Uday Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. "The general perception is that this bombing could not have happened without the ISI's cooperation. It was not the work of some bandit or independent actors."
India and Afghanistan appear to be deepening their ties. More than 4,000 Indians work in Afghanistan. There are six Indian consulates there. The main immigration office in New Delhi has a special section for Afghans seeking residency or asylum in India. By helping rebuild Afghanistan, India sees itself as promoting regional stability as well as balancing Pakistan's influence in Kabul, experts said.
In recent years, Pakistan's government has been increasingly wary of India's influence in Afghanistan, including New Delhi's close ties to the government of President Hamid Karzai, who studied in India, as did most of Afghanistan's leadership.
An Indian air base in Tajikistan, the first one outside the country, also has increased Pakistan's worries about India's growing strategic reach in the region. The air base is a transit point for security forces and material to Afghanistan.
In the past few years, India has sent mountain-trained paramilitary forces to protect its workers in Afghanistan from kidnappings and attacks. About 500 Indian police officers are deployed there.
India has opened consulates in Herat and Mazar-e Sharif; it also reopened two in Jalalabad and Kandahar that had been shut since 1979. In January, India completed the Zaranj-Delaram highway near the Iranian border. In May, an Indian-made power transmission line brought 24-hour electricity to Kabul, the capital.
"I always say that Kabul is the new Kashmir," said Rashid, the Pakistani author, referring to the disputed Himalayan region that is claimed by both India and Pakistan.
He added: "The bombings against the Indian Embassy in Kabul will be logged in the Indian mind beside the Mumbai attacks. All this is accumulating in the Indian mind and could lead to some kind of eventual retaliation."