Anti-India forces in Afghanistan fingered in Mazar-e-Sharif consulate attack

Close on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the India-funded and built Afghan parliament building in Kabul, India’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif came under fierce attack on Jan. 3, when three terrorists sought to storm the consulate building.

Burning Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif attack

Burning Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif attack

While personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Afghan security forces were able to thwart the terrorists’ plan, they were locked in a 25-hour gun battle with them, indicating that the attackers were very heavily armed. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet.

Messages written in blood in Urdu on the walls of the building where the terrorists were holed up suggest that the attack was to avenge the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was hanged in 2013 for his role in the attack on the Indian parliament building in 2001. Analysts have deduced that the attack could be the work of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, who was believed to have masterminded the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and behind the recent attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot as well. Indeed the attack at Mazar-e-Sharif was carried out even as Indian forces were battling terrorists at Pathankot.

Indian missions in Afghanistan have been repeatedly targeted by terrorists. The assault on the Mazar-e-Sharif consulate is the eighth time that India’s diplomatic missions have come under fire in Afghanistan since 2008.

India’s warm relations with the Afghan government, its robust role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, which has endeared it to the Afghan masses has prompted anti-India forces operating in Afghanistan  to target its missions, projects and personnel.

Such attacks can be expected to increase in the coming months.

Afghan Quick Reaction Force soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during Mazar-e-Sharif terror siege

Afghan Quick Reaction Force soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during Mazar-e-Sharif terror siege

Till recently, India’s role in Afghanistan was largely restricted to infrastructure and capacity building. It stayed away from playing a military role there. Then in October 2011 India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, which envisaged India “training, equipping, and capacity building” of the Afghan national security and defence forces. It has been training Afghan soldiers at its military academies since. Then in May 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai presented Delhi with a “wish-list” for lethal and non-lethal weaponry including military helicopters, tanks, artillery etc.

India hesitated in fulfilling Karzai’s request, concerned over how Pakistan would perceive and respond to the military supplies to Kabul. It considered paying Russia to supply Kabul with the weaponry. Even as it dilly-dallied, there was a change of government in Kabul.

Hoping that Islamabad would help his government negotiate with the Taliban, Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani reached out to Pakistan. In a speech he made in September 2014, which is widely described as the “five-circle foreign policy speech, he placed Pakistan in the first circle of countries that are most important to Kabul. India was put in the fourth circle, signalling its rather peripheral role in Ghani’s foreign policy priorities.

During this period, Ghani put on ice Karzai’s request for weapons from India. His visit to Delhi in April 2015 was largely unproductive. No agreements were signed. The  Strategic Partnership Agreement did not even figure on the bilateral agenda.

However, with his outreach to Pakistan failing to bear fruit, Ghani appears to be turning to India again. In the context of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan particularly in the wake of the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz and repeated attacks in Kabul, support from Delhi was seen to be imperative. Ghani revived the old request for weapons from India.

During his visit to Kabul, Modi handed over three Mi-25 attack aircraft to the Afghan government. These are the first offensive weapons that Delhi has provided Kabul with.

While the attack aircraft may not boost the Afghan army’s capacity substantially, it is a start and could accelerate in the coming months. This is bound to raise hackles in the Pakistani establishment, which resents any expansion of Indian involvement in Afghanistan. It is likely to activate groups like the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, the Jaish-e-Mohammed etc to strike at Indian assets in Afghanistan.

The recent attacks at Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif underscore India’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks at home and abroad. India will need to step up its guard.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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