Carnage in Kabul

Published : Aug 01, 2008 00:00 IST

A policeman carries an injured person after the suicide attack.-REUTERS

A policeman carries an injured person after the suicide attack.-REUTERS

A suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7 kills 58 people and injures 170.

THE suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, which killed 58 people and injured 170, was the biggest terrorist incident in Kabul since the events of September 11, 2001. It was the deadliest in Afghanistan since a suicide bomber killed more than a 100 people who were watching a dog-fighting contest in Kandahar province in February.

Among those killed in the massive explosion were four Indians two senior diplomats and two security personnel. Six Afghan police officers were also killed. The suicide bomber had tried to ram his explosives-laden vehicle through the gates of the embassy. The two Indian diplomats; the military attache, Brigadier Ravi Datt Mehta; and the Political Counsellor, V. Venkateswara Rao were among those who were killed instantaneously. The majority of the Afghan civilians who were killed had been queuing up for Indian visas.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, describing it as an attempt by militants to rupture the friendship between Afghanistan and India. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the attack would not stop India from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan.

Messages of condolence poured in from all over the world. The Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad, said that the suicide bomber intended to demolish the entire embassy building. He said that among those killed were schoolchildren who attend classes near the embassy. The Afghan Education Ministry has confirmed that eight schoolchildren perished in the attack.

The Indian embassy resumed functioning, and also began issuing visas, just two days after the horrendous attack. This is seen as a clear message that one suicide attack, however devastating, is not going to stop India from engaging with the Afghan people. India has committed $750 million to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

One of the important projects is the building of a road in the south-western part of the country, which will give Afghanistan access to ports in Iran. The road will be useful to India in its efforts to find a bigger market in Central Asian countries. Indians, working on the Zaranj-Delaram highway project in Nimroz province and security personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) stationed there, have been targeted by the Taliban. Landlocked Afghanistan is now dependent on Pakistan for most of its imports. Islamabad has so far refused New Delhi permission to export Indian goods to Afghanistan through Pakistani territory.

The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told the AFP news agency that the Taliban would have been proud to claim responsibility for the attack but they were not involved in it. He said he wished the Taliban itself had carried out the attack since India was the enemy of the Islamic emirate. He accused the Indian government of sending secret military experts to Afghanistan to train the Afghan Army. Mujahed suggested that the attack could have been the result of regional rivalry. He said the United States, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India are rivals in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been critical of Indias high diplomatic profile in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The setting up of four Indian consulates on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has particularly irritated Islamabad. Pakistani officials have described these consulates as nothing but outposts for Indian intelligence agencies out to foment trouble in the restive tribal areas and to support Baluch and Pashtun separatist movements.

The Taliban, in recent years, has disavowed responsibility for bombings that have resulted in the deaths of innocent Afghan civilians. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his more vocal second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri have singled out India as an enemy of Islam in many of their speeches in recent years. Their ire is directed mainly at the growing closeness between New Delhi, Tel Aviv and Washington and also at Indias Kashmir policy.

The Taliban views all countries engaged in reconstruction work in Afghanistan as allies of the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) occupation forces in their country. New Delhi is also one of the strongest backers of the beleaguered Afghan President and there is no love lost between Karzai and the political and military establishment in Islamabad.

The Indian embassy is situated on a main avenue near one of the busiest markets in Kabul. About 10 days before the attack, there was a security alert about a possible terrorist attack in the area. Adjacent to the Indian embassy is the Afghan Interior Ministry. The Air India office is also situated on the same street. Some Afghan reporters and officials suggested that the real target may have been the Afghan Interior Ministry, the target of a huge suicide bombing last year.

The number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, which had reached alarming numbers, has escalated further in recent weeks. The killings of innocent Afghan civilians in aerial bombings by the U.S. and NATO forces have not helped matters. A few days before the attack on the Indian embassy, U.S. warplanes bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan, killing 20 civilians, including women and children. A day before that, 15 civilians were killed in a U.S. air raid in Nuristan province. President Karzai has ordered an enquiry into the incidents.

On many previous occasions, he has criticised the West for callously causing civilian deaths. The Indian embassy recently raised and reinforced the walls around the building in an attempt to strengthen its defences. The road leading to it, which houses the Indonesian embassy as well, was also heavily barricaded. However, according to people who use the road, Afghan security personnel manning the barricades routinely accepted bribes to allow unauthorised vehicles such as taxis to go through without rigorous checks.

Taking into account the security environment, the Indian authorities decided some years ago to move the embassy to a safer place in a high-security zone. But the construction work has been behind schedule. The new building was supposed to have been functional by now.

The Afghan government was quick to blame the Taliban for the attack. The Presidents official spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, went a step further, indirectly accusing the Pakistani Intelligence agencies of masterminding the attack. The sophistication of this attack and the kind of material that was used in it and the specific targeting, everything has a hallmark of a particular agency that has conducted similar terrorist acts inside Afghanistan in the past. We have sufficient evidence to say that, Hamidzada told reporters in Kabul.

The Afghan authorities have, in recent years blamed the Pakistan intelligence agencies for the resurgence of the Taliban forces. Islamabad has also been accused of complicity in the mass breakout of Taliban prisoners from the Kandahar Central prison in June.

The Stenlis Council, a Paris-based think tank, in a report published in early June said the Taliban was in control of half of Maidan Wardak province. The province is only a 45-minute drive from Kabul. The report said the findings were further proof of the Talibans resurgence in and around Kabul and in the southern and eastern heartlands. In its report last year, the Stenlis Council pointed out that the question now appears to be not if the Taliban will return to Kabul but when this will happen and in what form.

Indian officials also point fingers at the Pakistani intelligence agencies but are reluctant to articulate their suspicions openly. Former Indian Intelligence Bureau officials and political commentators, however, have squarely laid the blame on Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

A U.S. Department of Defence-funded study undertaken by the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation, published in June, asserted that elements in the ISI were aiding the Taliban.

NATO officials uncovered several instances in which ISI operatives provided intelligence to Taliban insurgents at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, the report said.

Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani was quick to rebut the allegations emanating from Kabul, emphasising that Pakistan had a stake in the stability of Afghanistan. He pointed out that suicide attacks inside Pakistan had also risen dramatically. The U.S. State Department spokesman said he believed the attack was the handiwork of terrorists who wanted to destabilise Afghanistan.

The American officials have also said that they believe that the Pakistan-based Taliban do not necessarily coordinate their activities with their Afghan counterparts. For the Pakistani Taliban, the main enemy is the U.S. and President Pervez Musharraf. The suicide bombings that commemorated the first anniversary of the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad are seen an illustration of this.

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