The terrorist attack on August 3 outside the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, has huge implications for India-Pakistan relations. Knowledgeable Afghans and Indian government officials suspect that the suicide bombers who tried to storm the Indian consulate were Pakistani nationals or abetted by Pakistani intelligence agencies. The bloody turf war between South Asia’s old rivals for influence over the gateway to Central Asia is well and truly undiminished.
It is worth remembering that the same Indian consulate in Jalalabad had been attacked previously in 2007, while the Indian embassy in Kabul has been rocked twice by daring jihadist strikes in 2008 and 2009. The fact that India did not lose any of its citizens in the latest outrage at Jalalabad shows that some of the lessons in security and protocol it has adopted in Afghanistan are working. But this does not take away from the larger problem that Afghanistan is now a core issue that bedevils India-Pakistan ties.
Most conventional analyses of India-Pakistan tensions focus on direct bilateral concerns like territorial claims, water sharing, cross-border violence and the separatist aspirations of populations in disputed lands. The brutality of the armed forces on the Line of Control and the futility of bringing perpetrators of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai stand out as particularly troublesome aspects.
But the attack in Jalalabad, a traditional hunting ground for jihadist groups allied with elements of the Pakistani state, reveals that a final settlement between New Delhi and Islamabad has no option but to travel via the detour of Kabul.
I recently spoke with the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Salman Bashir, on the Afghanistan factor in the state of current relations between the two countries. Mr. Bashir was categorical that Pakistan would not be opposed to extending the range of dialogue with India beyond the bilateral frame and moving into broader terrain about regional geopolitical tussles that have colored the historical animus between the two nations.
On Afghanistan, Bashir said that he did not think India and Pakistan were locked in any fundamental clash of interests. Rather, he reiterated the diplomatic stance that Islamabad wants to see the same end result in Afghanistan as New Delhi, viz. a national reconciliation and end to the war via an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. “We do not believe that foreign intervention can ever stabilize Afghanistan or lead it to peace,” he added.
For a land that has suffered historically due to foreign interventions, the idea of all big foreign players backing off and allowing Afghans to determine their own fates is an attractive one. Abstractly speaking, it does also bind New Delhi and Islamabad and places them on the same page. But going from a statement of generic, in-principle, agreement to walking the talk and implementing foreign policies that are genuinely non-interventionist in Afghanistan is an entirely different proposition.
In the Pakistani narrative, India is proliferating consulates all over Afghanistan with a view to counter and weaken Islamabad’s commanding presence in that country. Islamabad also alleges that New Delhi is using Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan to finance and arm anti-Pakistan separatist rebels of Balochistan (which borders south-eastern Afghanistan). The indisputable fact that India has some military and intelligence assets operating under cover in Afghanistan feeds into Pakistani phobias that India has a larger vested agenda in that country to geopolitically flank and hem in Pakistan from both sides of its borders.