Fifteen civilians and two Afghan policemen deployed outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul are reported to have been killed on October 8, 2009, when an explosive-laden vehicle driven by a suicide bomber exploded outside the Embassy. A claim of responsibility was subsequently made through a web site linked with the Neo Taliban (Afghan) stating that the blast was carried out by the Taliban.
This was the second blast directed at the Indian Embassy. The first one in July, 2008, was more deadly killing about 60 persons -- two of them senior diplomats of the Embassy, one a civilian and the other an officer of the Indian Army. The blast of July, 2008, indicated inadequacies in the physical security of the Embassy premises and its ability to withstand the impact of a severe explosion. These deficiencies have since been removed. The fact that the blast of October 8--though reportedly as powerful as last year's--could not cause major damages in the Embassy premises and resulted only in injuries to three Indian personnel shows that the fortified Embassy premises was well able to withstand the force of the blast.
The blast of last year as well as the latest one indicate weaknesses in access control. The Taliban and its associates such as Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami have been targeting for months not only the Indian Embassy, but also the Embassies of Western countries, particularly the US. The fact that the terrorists--whoever they might be-- have so far not been able to get as close to the US and other Western Embassies as they have been able to reach in the case of the Indian Embassy indicates gaps in access control. This has to be discussed by Indian security with their Afghan counterparts, who are responsible for access control and the gaps identified and removed.
The Indian Embassy has been twice targeted by Taliban elements because it is viewed as the co-ordinator of the various projects undertaken with Indian assistance for the economic development of Afghanistan and for the promotion of democracy. Though the Indian-aided projects have no military significance, Pakistan views these projects, the resulting increase in the Indian presence for the execution of these projects and the developing relations between India and Afghanistan at the governmental level as detrimental to its interests.
There is a convergence of objectives between Pakistan and the Taliban on the need to force India to reverse its policies towards Afghanistan and reduce its presence and activities to a level, which would be acceptable to Pakistan. For more than a year now, Pakistan has mounted a campaign against the Indian presence and activities-- through diplomatic means as well as through its surrogates in Afghanistan such as the Taliban.
The objective of the diplomatic campaign is to make the US to bring about a dilution of the Indian role through pressures on the government of India as well as that of Hamid Karzai. The objective of the use of the surrogates in Afghan territory is to make India pay a bloody price for its presence and intimidate it into re-considering its Afghan presence even if the pressure through the US does not work.
The intimidatory attacks on Indian nationals and presence and on Indian establishments in Afghanistan are likely to continue. The government of India is determined not to be intimidated and this determination has to continue. One could be certain that the government of India would have evaluated the risks involved by undertaking development and democracy-promotion projects in Afghanistan. One must be prepared to face more such attacks and not to let these attacks come in the way of the implementation of the Indian projects.
At the same time, one has to repeatedly make a vulnerability assessment of the Indian projects and the Indian diplomatic and consular missions and constantly upgrade their physical security. Sitting tight, going ahead with our projects whatever be the threats and constantly identifying and removing gaps in physical security, with the co-operation of the Afghan government, is one of the two options available to India in Afghan territory. The other option is to mobilise the support of the traditionally pro-Indian sections of the Afghan civil society and the pro-India Pashtun elements in Pakistan for the continuance of the Indian projects through various instruments of soft power such as radio, TV, personal interactions etc.
There is another dimension--that is, identifying and neutralising the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistani territory from where these attacks are mounted, with the connivance of the Pakistani agencies. This calls for a proactive counter-sanctuaries policy. What are the options available to India to target the sanctuaries and how to implement the ultimately adopted option have to be examined at a high level and necessary directives given to all those who will be involved in counter-sanctuaries actions. Until and unless this is done, periodic attacks on Indian nationals and interests in Afghanistan will continue. The primary decision that the time has come for a counter-sanctuaries strategy has to come from the political leadership, which has till now been reluctant to go into the activist mode.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.