Pakistan, India and the Kabul attack

February 27, 2010

kabulAs discussed in my last post, the place to watch for developments on relations between India and Pakistan right now is more likely to be Kabul than Kashmir. That may have been graphically illustrated when Taliban fighters attacked Kabul on Friday, killing 16 people, including up to nine Indians.

It is too early to say whether the attack specifically targetted Indian interests or whether it was aimed at foreigners more generally. But India has blamed earlier attacks on its interests in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – its embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice.

“These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan, and do not wish to see a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan,” an Indian Foreign Ministry statement said after Friday’s attack.

India invested heavily in Afghanistan after the fall of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001 and has built close ties with the government of President Hamid Karzai.  Islamabad accuses it of using its large presence there (it has four consulates along with its Kabul embassy) to channel money and weapons to militants seeking to destabilise Pakistan — a charge New Delhi denies.

So one question to ask is whether the Kabul attack was an extension of an undeclared proxy war between the two countries in Afghanistan. And if so, what does it mean for their fresh attempt at dialogue begun with a meeting of  their foreign secretaries on Thursday? In such a decentralised insurgency, the Kabul attack was unlikely to be timed specifically to follow those talks but it could sour the mood further. 

And although the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, Thomas Ruttig at the Afghanistan Analysts Network asks where this would leave the statement made by Taliban leader Mullah Omar that his movement did not represent a threat to any other country. “Does that not apply to India?” he writes. “Or has this attack been carried out by other elements: Pakistani Taleban, the Haqqani network or those linked to groups like Lashkar-e Taiba or al-Qaeda that has declared ‘Hindu’ India a target, too?”

In the meantime, U.S. media appear to be stepping up calls on Washington to do more to try to nudge India and Pakistan back into peace talks, judging by these editorials in The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. “The administration knows how important it is for India and Pakistan to lower tensions,” said The New York Times. “At India’s insistence, it has decided to take a low profile role, nudging the two sides discreetly back to the table. It should nudge harder.”

What would be interesting to see, however, are specifics on how they think the U.S. administration should do that given how little leverage it has proved to have had in the past over both countries. More transparency on what Washington thinks is going on Afghanistan in terms of competition for influence between Pakistan and India would be even more useful.

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