New Delhi: A bomb attack on India’s Kabul embassy may have been aimed at limiting India’s role in Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, at a time when the United States is re-examining strategy in the 8-year-long Afghan war.
Insurgent militants would like to force India to scale down its presence in Afghanistan, where New Delhi is spending $1.2 billion on projects supporting the US-backed government’s development drive, important to gaining popular support.
The Taliban have quickly claimed responsibility for Thursday’s blast which killed 17 people.
But many in India also see the hand of Pakistan, which competes with India for strategic space in Afghanistan and considers it a fall-back position in the event of war with India.
The Indian government has not yet pointed a finger of blame at anyone, while Pakistan has condemned the attack.
Hindu majority India seeks to retain influence in Afghanistan to deter anti-India militant training camps there - which it accuses Pakistan of backing - and to more generally try to counter a militant surge threatening regional security.
An assault blamed on militants killed 166 people in Mumbai last November.
“It is clear that India’s growing role in Afghanistan will draw counter measures that will complicate all efforts to bring peace,” said Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general.
“The Americans, who are in the process of reviewing their Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) policy, are being told to rein in India, otherwise the India-Pakistan rivalry is going to be a drain on all efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.”
The United States wants India on board in anti-terror efforts and more generally as an important economic and geopolitical ally, but cannot afford to alienate Pakistan in the process.
Pakistan key to Afghanistan conflict
Washington needs Islamabad to go after Afghan insurgents who use Pakistan territory for a base, and to clamp down on any elements of its intelligence agencies and military who may be backing the militants.
US President Barack Obama has launched a review of his administration’s six-month-old war strategy and is debating whether to send up to 40,000 more troops as recommended by top US and NATO Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal.
Many Indian analysts view Thursday’s attack in the context of McChrystal’s report, which had made reference to the rivalry between India and Pakistan for strategic influence in Kabul, complicating Western efforts to stabilize the region.
“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment,” it said.
The report said the current Afghan government was perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian and a rise in New Delhi’s influence in Kabul was likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.
“The attackers want to underline the McChrystal report and make the point that any attempt to rely on India or involve India (in any new US policy) will complicate matters,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper.
“This is a clear signal to the US that India’s presence in Afghanistan will be resisted and that the US has to factor that in their Af-Pak policy,” said strategic analyst Uday Bhaskar.
Analysts say that as India widens its reach in the region - building an air base in Tajikistan and helping build highways linking Afghanistan with Central Asia to access ports there - Pakistan watches warily.
Pakistan uneasy over Indian role
Pakistan, the Taliban’s main backer until Islamabad sided with Washington after the 11 September 2001 attacks, has been uneasy about increased Indian influence in Afghanistan and some analysts say that is one incentive for it to continue lending covert support to Islamist forces despite lip service to the contrary.
Meanwhile recriminations over their respective roles in Afghanistan do nothing to further India’s and Pakistan’s sputtering efforts to keep a dialogue going over other issues.
The two neighbours have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947 and still wrangle over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
New Delhi was a major non-communist Cold War ally of the former Soviet Union. Pakistan was a strategic ally of the United States and cooperated with it in efforts to dislodge Soviet troops from Afghanistan -- partly by training and funding Islamic fighters.
After the end of the Cold War, both Islamabad and New Delhi engaged in a competition for a strategic hold on Afghanistan. “So in that sense what you see in Afghanistan today is an extension of that competition and what happened yesterday is a clear-cut Pakistani exercise aimed at Indians,” said Satish Chandra, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.
Former chief of India’s spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) warned of more attacks on Indian interests.
“They want India out. They will continue attacking.”