You cannot drive up to the gate of the Indian consulate in central Herat. The road leading to the consulate is blocked 200 meters before the entrance and anyone wanting to reach the main office has to walk down and pass through at least three layers of security before entering the facility. The level of security enjoyed by the consulate is matched only by the American consulate. Within a five hundred meter radius lie Pakistan and Iran’s consulates — both of whom operate without too much in the way of security paraphernalia.
This same high security Indian consulate came under attack recently. In the latest attack in a series of aggressive moves against Indian establishments in Afghanistan, the consulate in western Afghanistan came under fire on Friday morning. Reports say that four gunmen started firing on the consulate early in the morning from a nearby building and it took over 10 hours for security forces to tame the infiltrators. There were no casualties on the side of the Indian and Afghan security personnel, but were some injuries to a couple of the Afghan National Army soldiers who responded. One attacker was shot in the altercation.
Can we look at the incident through the prism of the “Spring Offensive” launched by the Taliban recently? Is the latest attack one more in the series of attacks that have taken place on Indian offices in the trouble-torn country?
“You know the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of attacks on Indian establishments is the Haqqani network. It is only this group which has the sophistication to launch and execute a high profile attack. This we have seen in 2008 when the Indian embassy was attacked in Kabul. The group enjoys the backing of the ISI, hence the precision and sophistication in attack,” says Bilal Sarwary, a BBC journalist based in Kabul. However, he further adds that “this time nobody is accepting the responsibility. It’s intriguing. But the timing of the terrorist attack is suspect.” Herat police chief General Samihullah Qatra also blames the Pakistan-based terrorist network for the attack.
It’s the timing of the attack which is important. On Monday, a new government under the Hindu right-wing leader Narendra Modi is going to be sworn in. Modi has invited all the South Asian leaders who are part of the regional organization, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), to the ceremony. With the exception of Pakistan, all other seven members have confirmed the participation of their leaders.
Pakistan’s delay in accepting the invitation not only exposes the fault lines in Islamabad between the civilian and military establishments; it also gives a hint as to the causes of the attack on the consulate in Herat. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a huge challenge from religious hardliners and extremist forces while dealing with India. These non-state actors, who are opposed to any kind of improvement in relations between the two neighbors, want to create a situation where it becomes difficult for the two South Asian countries to come closer. The extremist forces have always thrived on anti-India sentiment and proximity between New Delhi and Islamabad will kill the very leitmotif of their existence.
A senior security expert based in Islamabad, on the condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat: “You have to understand the timing of the attack. There are forces in Pakistan who have always been agitated over any bonhomie with New Delhi. They are getting more aggressive ever since Modi won the elections in India. They see the BJP leader as an enemy of Muslims and, therefore, oppose any kind of ties with him.” Furthermore, there were earlier reports that an anti-India terror group called for attacks against Indian targets worldwide after the victory of Narendra Modi in Delhi. Entrenched extremist Islamic forces see Modi more as a Hindu prime minister than an Indian one.
Therefore, for the Indian leadership it will not be easy to normalize the relationship with the Islamic neighborhood despite Delhi’s best intention. Modi’s image as a Hindu hardliner encourages aggressive religious fervor among a section of Pakistani society which the Islamic state cannot wish away. Sharif cannot override the reservations of the Islamic extremists who have long enjoyed the patronage of the ISI and the army. One more plausible answer for the attack on the consulate can be Kabul’s growing proximity with New Delhi and India’s growing involvement in the Hindukush. The Pakistani army and jihadi forces in the region have always resented the South Asian democracy’s rising profile in the war torn nation.
Whatever the motives and reasons driving those targeting Indian establishments in Afghanistan, the region cannot witness peace unless there is a greater understanding between the major stakeholders and players in South Asia.