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Embassy Attack In Kabul Highlights Pakistan-India Rivalry

  • Ron Synovitz

Workers clear rubble near the Indian Embassy in Kabul in the aftermath of the bombing

Workers clear rubble near the Indian Embassy in Kabul in the aftermath of the bombing

After the July 7 suicide car bomb attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, international attention has turned to New Delhi's interests and activities in Afghanistan.

Although India's role there ranges from training of security forces to road construction that could help make Afghanistan a significant trade route, the spotlight ultimately falls on how the rivalry between India and Pakistan is being played out in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed the July 7 bombing on what he called the "enemies of the strong friendship between India and Afghanistan."

Kabul has stopped short of accusing Pakistan's government of being directly involved in the suicide bombing, which killed 41 people. And Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has denied any involvement by Islamabad.

But Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the attack was coordinated with "foreign agents in the region" -- a likely reference to Pakistan:

"The sophistication of this attack and the kind of material that was used in it, the specific targeting, everything has the hallmarks of a particular intelligence agency that has conducted similar terrorist acts inside Afghanistan in the past. So, we have sufficient evidence to say that," Hamidzada said.

Raul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly, tells RFE/RL he thinks the Indian government ultimately will point fingers at Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies.

Bedi says Pakistan and India are still competing against each other for influence in Afghanistan as part of what he called a "continuing Great Game." Not the 19th-century "Great Game" in which the colonial powers sought to acquire land in the region -- but a 21st-century competition for influence on security and control of trade routes linking the Asian subcontinent to Central Asia.

"There's a very cynical game going on for control inside Afghanistan," Bedi said. "And I think the Indians have, more or less, been dragged into it -- because India is very keen to play a role in Afghanistan for very obvious reasons. And, in fact, India is also keen to establish its presence further than Afghanistan -- into Central Asia, which is also something that is bothering Pakistan. So I think that this is sort of a third-party confrontation that is taking place outside of Indian and Pakistani territory."

A Proxy Conflict

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since the two countries were created in 1947 from the partition of British Colonial India. In recent years, the old rivalry has often played out in Afghanistan, as both Islamabad and New Delhi have sought to increase their influence there.

Pakistan helped create the Taliban -- some say to advance its own foreign-policy goals in Afghanistan -- and only dropped its support for the Taliban regime after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

India, meanwhile, had no formal diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. But it did bankroll factions of the former Northern Alliance, helping them to fight against the Taliban regime.

After the Taliban regime fled Kabul in late 2001, when commanders of the former Northern Alliance were appointed to key positions in Afghanistan's post-Taliban transitional government, many lucrative contracts to rebuild Afghan highway infrastructure were awarded to Indian firms.

To the irritation of Pakistan, India in 2002 began to open up a series of consulates across southern Afghanistan and deployed some 500 troops to guard Indian road-construction workers there. Islamabad responded by accusing India of setting up a spy network in Afghanistan and using it to support Baluchi separatists in southwestern Pakistan.

Pakistan also has been irritated by growing ties between the military forces of Afghanistan and India. Those ties include the deployment of 14 Indian military officers to Afghanistan where they are helping to train the Afghan National Army. India’s top military attaché to Kabul was killed in Monday’s bombing.

India's cultural influence also has been growing in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Indian satellites relay television programming into Afghanistan, as well as Bollywood films, which have become hugely popular in the urban areas of Afghanistan.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, has argued for years that Afghanistan has become a focal point in the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Rubin says both Islamabad and New Delhi so far seem more concerned about their own national security interests than the benefits all three countries could reap by working together to make Afghanistan a trade route between Central Asia with the Indian subcontinent.

"For Pakistan, the question is how it defines its national interest," Rubin said. "Is it defined by an anti-India national security approach? Or can Pakistan envision a larger regional role as an Islamic power in the region -- not just a national Islamic state? Or can it conceive for itself a role as a developmental state that engages in policies of mutual benefit with its neighbors and overcomes past territorial and ideological conflicts? That depends partly on India as well. India and Pakistan, hopefully, will some day overcome these problems. Afghanistan is paying the price for it."

Indian Engineering

Niklas Swanstrom, an independent analyst at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden, told RFE/RL that the highways Indian engineers have been helping to rebuild in Afghanistan -- including the main "ring road" around the country -- will boost trade from Central Asia and through Afghanistan to the subcontinent.

"Afghanistan has been a crucial factor in the whole economic equation of Central Asia," Swanstrom said. "Financially, it will be very important if Afghanistan can act as a link for the Central Asian states toward water. And I think trade could increase tremendously."

But Swanstrom notes that improved trade links are likely to benefit Afghanistan and Central Asia more than India itself, or China, another player in Afghanistan's development.

"If you look at the road corridors in the region and the economic impact of that, we really expect that the incremental regional trade growth between 2002 and 2010 will be something like a 160 percent increase. That's a huge impact," Swanstrom said. "We expect the growth in [China and India] to be about 2 or 3 percent if they are attached to this regional network. And of course, the impact on Central Asia -- places like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- will be much larger than in India or China."

More important for India's energy hungry economy is the proposed trans-Afghanistan pipeline, which would carry natural gas over a 1,680-kilometer route from Turkmenistan to India through western Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The pipeline would be the first major export route for Central Asian natural gas that is outside the reach of Russia's state-controlled monopoly, Gazprom. It also could contribute to rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad by raising the level of interdependence between them.

In addition to quenching India's growing thirst for energy, the trans-Afghanistan pipeline is seen as a way to enhance India's energy security.

But New Delhi needs Pakistan's cooperation as a transit country for the pipeline to reach India. And without India's participation, the project is not considered to be viable.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed on the project by the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. But so far, no companies have been contracted to construct the pipeline and little work has been done in the past decade to study its feasibility -- leaving a question mark over the project’s future.

And that leaves questions about how the rivalry between Pakistan and India will continue to impact Afghanistan.
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