The Indian mission in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, was attacked this Saturday. According to reports from the ground, three terrorists drove up to the consulate in a car before detonating their explosives. The target had obviously been the Indian consulate, but the attackers failed to get into the building, detonating their explosives in the street. The incident has left at least 12 dead and 23 injured. Though the Taliban has denied a hand in the attack, suspicions linger primarily on the Pakistani ISI-backed Haqqani network. It has been learned, however, that security threats were received from several smaller terrorist outfits based in Pakistan too. This is not the first attack on Indian assets in Afghanistan – the same station was attacked in 2007, and the Indian embassy was attacked twice, in 2008 and 2009. India maintains three other consulates in the Central Asian country, in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar.
Repeated attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan ought to be worrying in their own regard. To compound Delhi’s worries, al Qa’ida has executed a series of successful jailbreaks in Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan, releasing hundreds of jihadists. Most of these would most likely return to their own wars in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, but many will find their way to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s troubled frontiers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and perhaps even Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.
In case the prospect of hundreds of returning jihadists did not cause Indian security officials to lose sleep, the US pullout from Afghanistan will leave a tidy cache of weapons for Pakistan. That the abandonment of surplus weaponry too expensive to take back home is standard US practice will be of little consolation to Delhi; furthermore, it is understood that the US is considering resuming military aid to Pakistan through friendly third parties via the Pakistan Counter-Terrorism Fund (PCF) and the Pakistan Counter-Terrorism Capability Fund (PCCF).
The United States is expected to complete its withdrawal by the end of 2014. Many analysts worry that this would cause a surge in Taliban activity in Afghanistan and may sorely test the stability of Hamid Karzai’s government; already, intelligence intercepts indicate that the ISI has placed a bounty on the head of the Indian ambassador to Kabul. Given the trajectory of events in the past ten days, India’s presence in Afghanistan is likely to come under serious attack soon, and definitely post-2014.
India has several options at its disposal. The first is to turn down Indian presence in Afghanistan. By reducing diplomatic and economic ties, India reduces its exposure to the Taliban. Primarily preoccupied with regaining power at home, it is unlikely that the Afghan part of the Taliban would bother to chase Indians across the border…for now. This option buys time (though for what is unclear), and reduces the intensity of attacks India will probably experience otherwise in the immediate future.
A second option is to further fortify Indian consulates and the embassy, as well as lean on the Afghan government to provide extra security in areas Indians live and work. After all, Delhi has already invested approximately $2 billion in infrastructural loans in the country and will probably increase its role in that sector. However, this option will only increase the illusion of security without necessarily providing significant increase in safety. Indians outside the heavily fortified compounds of their companies and government will remain vulnerable to attacks and kidnappings; embassy security can be breached by a dedicated team of well-armed terrorists, which the present situation has certainly created. In addition, it will always remain a difficult task to do business in a country from behind high walls, to say nothing of the hit India’s soft power will take. The message from Delhi will appear to read, “Your problems are yours alone, we are here only for the economics.”
Delhi’s third option is to increase dramatically the range and quantity of weapons Afghanistan wants to buy from it. The Karzai government has already presented India with such a wishlist in May, but the UPA government refused to consider the request. Manmohan Singh may have to reconsider this decision now, given the increasing threats to Indian interests, Pakistan’s boldness, and the US retreat. It may certainly sound like an imperial policy, but realpolitik dictates that India must be willing to defend Afghanistan at least until the last drop of Afghan blood.
A strong Indian backing of Afghanistan is not merely about Pakistan; India also has interests in developing its access to Central Asia’s rich energy resources as well as seek out trade opportunities in those countries as an insurance policy against other regional states of concern. Especially if India stops dragging its feet on the development of Chabahar, Afghanistan may develop into a vital conduit of Central Asian energy for India.
India’s most heavy-handed option is to deploy its military overseas. There is no indication that Kabul would welcome this, and more importantly, the cost of such an adventure could be astronomical in terms of money as well as blood. This is assuming, of course, that India can work out the logistics and even has the capability for such an operation. India also suffers from its version of the Vietnam Syndrome, the IPKF Syndrome, and any such foreign deployment will be fraught with political ambiguity, social second-guessing, and military danger.
For now, the prudent course of action seems to be to follow a combination of these options – give the Afghan Army a blank cheque regarding weapons it wants from India, train their soldiers and special forces, and send the inaugural contingent of a “Diplomatic Assets Protection Force” to Afghanistan. The purpose of this newly-formed force to be drawn from elite Indian units would be solely to guard Indian facilities in hotspots around the world. In his recent meeting with Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will, after all, be maintaining a residual force in Afghanistan post-2014; India needs to explore any synergies that exist between the US’ new mission as evinced by this force and its own security. Russia might be another logistical partner South Block can tap – after all, Moscow ought to be almost as concerned as Delhi about a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan spreading its ideology into the former Soviet –stans. Delhi can then cross its fingers and pray – this will not be over any time soon.