India-Pakistan Tensions Find Deadly Echo in Afghanistan

A suicide bombing at the Indian consulate in Jalalabad is the latest episode in the simmering geopolitical struggle between the nuclear rivals

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Parwiz / Reuters

Afghan policemen walk near a crater at the site of a suicide bomb attack at the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Aug. 3, 2013

On Aug. 3 three men drove up to a checkpoint outside the Indian consulate in the eastern trading hub of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. Two of the men leaped out of the car and opened fire. The third man, the driver, blew himself up, leaving a deep crater in the road and nine other Afghans, mostly children, dead. The intended targets — namely, Indians — were unharmed, and several days later, no group had claimed responsibility for the thwarted attack.

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It’s not the first time that India’s official presence has been targeted in Afghanistan. In 2008, over 50 people, including a senior Indian diplomat, were killed when a suicide bomber attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul. The following year, another suicide bomber attacked the site again, killing 17. Officials in Afghanistan, India and the U.S. have blamed both attacks on the Haqqani network, a clan the U.S. has accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of using for terrorism in Afghanistan. While New Delhi has yet to finger any group in the Jalalabad strike, the government released a statement that the main threat to Afghanistan’s stability still comes from “the terror machine that continues to operate from beyond its borders” — a thinly veiled barb at its longtime rival, Pakistan.

That tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors are playing out on Afghan soil is not new. During Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, India supported the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Pakistan, for its part, supported the Taliban as part of its long struggle to maintain influence in Afghanistan and expand its geographic safety zone in the event of a conflict with India. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, however, the newly installed Afghan government, headed by President Hamid Karzai, allied itself with India, an unpopular development, to say the least, among those in Islamabad who chafed at being sandwiched between India and an India-friendly Afghanistan. Since 2001, India has contributed some $2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, helped supply the Afghan military and trained an undisclosed number of Afghan forces in India. In 2011 Kabul granted an Indian consortium mining rights to one of the region’s largest iron-ore mines.

As India’s stake in Afghanistan has deepened, Indian personnel working there have faced regular targeting. Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, says Indian interests, from missions to NGOs to contract workers, have been repeatedly attacked, and, according to his organization, all of the attacks with confirmed perpetrators have been linked to terrorist cells either in Pakistan or backed by the ISI. In February 2010, two Kabul guesthouses popular with Indian expats were bombed, killing at least 17 people. Afghan officials again blamed Pakistan-backed terrorists with links to the ISI. But Pakistan today has its own internal struggles with homegrown militants, and some doubt the ISI has enough sway over groups like the Pakistani Taliban to order up hits like Jalalabad. “If [the ISI] had that much influence, then the situation here in Pakistan would be better,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and defense expert in the Pakistani city of Lahore. More likely, he says, is that Indian interests have been stalked by Afghan-based insurgents — which may or may not have Pakistan links — because of New Delhi’s cozy ties with Karzai and the West.

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One thing everyone agrees on is this: what happens after 2014 is a cause for concern. Today, a peace deal is still a possibility. But if the Afghan government and its security forces lose control of more of the country after most foreign troops leave next year, both India and Pakistan stand to lose in the ensuing chaos, with insurgents crossing over the porous border and emboldening the Pakistani Taliban, and regional terrorist groups making further inroads into India. In a worst-case scenario, a power vacuum could give way to a full-blown proxy war between India and Pakistan, with the two nations providing material backing for opposing sides in a new civil war. Sahni, however, thinks that’s unlikely. “India has never been able to project itself overtly or covertly as an aggressive force,” he says. “We’re a bunch of wimps in that respect.” But things could certainly get ugly enough to scuttle widely held hopes for more regional economic cooperation, including the development of a regional gas pipeline and the U.S. vision of linking up the infrastructure of Central and South Asia as part of a “new Silk Road.”

A little neighborly bonhomie could go a long way to keep symbiotic economic projects on track. “If relations can improve, then this rivalry [in Afghanistan] won’t be so visible,” says Rizvi. The past year had some bright points, with increased trade between the neighbors and the recently elected government in Pakistan, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, making overtures to improve ties with India. But, as six decades of fighting have proved, for every step forward, there is always a step back. On Aug. 6, as the two governments hashed out a date for the next round of bilateral talks, India claimed that 20 men wearing the uniform of Pakistani soldiers crossed into India at the nations’ border in Kashmir and killed five Indian soldiers, fanning the flames of enmity once again.

The only cause that wins from these regular flare-ups is extremism. “If India-Pakistan relations are bad, it gives [Pakistani militants] an excuse to mobilize support for their groups as Islamist and highly nationalist,” says Rizvi. “It gives them space for survival.” And, as old tensions spill over into places like Jalalabad and Kabul, it is Afghans who lose. A recent U.N. report found that, even today, Afghan civilian casualties due to conflict were up 23% in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period last year. Deaths among women and children were up 38%. If foreign governments continue to vie for control in Afghanistan, the ground will only be stained with more Afghan blood.

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