The first weekend of the 2016 witnessed two almost simultaneous terrorist strikes on Indian assets. The first was on the Pathankot air base, and the second, on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Both attacks were well-planned and the militants executing it, better trained - a hallmark of involvement of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex.
In the light of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent dramatic visit to Lahore, Pakistan, these strikes have been viewed as an attempt to subvert any normalisation of New Delhi-Islamabad relations. This article argues that the motivation for these strikes by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists lies in the recent upswing in India-Afghanistan relations.
Of late, India-Pakistan relations have been more on the ropes than on the rails and nothing significant had been achieved during Modi’s Lahore stopover except either for the announcement that the foreign secretaries of both countries would meet in three weeks time. The intensity and the potential of the terrorist strike on the Pathankot air base suggests that their aim could be more substantial than just to derail the tepid India-Pakistan parleys.
Despite some indications - including those by the JeM themselves during the Mazar-e-Sharif strike that their attacks were related to developments in Jammu & Kashmir, India - the motivation of these strikes are likelier to be the current heightened dynamics of the India-Afghanistan (re)engagement. These attacks sought to underline Pakistan’s existing view on India’s role in Afghanistan, prior to the crucial quadrilateral talks on the resumption of the Afghan reconciliation dialogue that have been held in Pakistan.
Reset of India’s Afghan Policy
Over the past two months, India delivered four Mi-25 attack helicopters, airlifted in the C-17 transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force, to Afghanistan. The attack helicopters have been commissioned in the Afghan Air Force that already operates three Indian-built Cheetal light helicopters. This has been a significant departure from what has otherwise been India’s Afghan policy - one where, despite repeated requests from Kabul, New Delhi had insofar refrained from providing lethal weaponry to the country.
It also comes after India, over the several preceding months, silently watched Afghan President Ashraf Ghani undertake efforts to win Pakistani support for his engagement with the Afghan Taliban. Some of these efforts had pushed India’s role in Afghanistan’s recovery to the background.
One could disregard as a mere coincidence the fact that a few Afghan pilots were undergoing training at the Pathankot air base as part of a group of 23 foreign trainee pilots at the time of the terrorist strike on the base.
A spate of attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan has also been witnessed during the period on either side of the timeline of the Pathankot attack. On 21 December 2015, Afghan security forces arrested a would-be suicide bomber and thwarted his plan to attack the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. Days later, security personnel arrested two terrorists who had planned to attack vehicles of the Jalalabad consulate with a 30-kg bomb. After the 4 January 2016 attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, on 8 January 2016, a vehicle transporting explosives was found near the Indian consulate in Herat, western Afghanistan.
Would one launch a strike on a consulate in Afghanistan to convey a message on Kashmir, when that 'message' was 'conveyed' quite visibly at Pathankot?
Modi in Kabul
Modi visited Kabul on Christmas Day to dedicate to the Afghan people, the centre piece of India’s development assistance to the country - a new parliament building. On the occasion, he delivered a powerful speech than emphasised India’s soft power, and did not mince words while alluding to Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s troubles.
Without naming Pakistan, he said, "there are some who did not want us to be here. There were those who saw sinister designs in our presence here. ... Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border; when nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut; and, their patrons are no longer in business."
On India’s role in the development of Afghanistan , he said "you know that India is here to contribute not to compete; to lay the foundations of future, not light the flame of conflict; to rebuild lives, not destroy a nation." He mentioned the role of "the mysterious Indian consulates" in Afghanistan in this regard. Some analysts saw Modi’s trip to Kabul and Lahore as a winner takes it all move, where he dealt himself a loaded hand; and as one commentator put it, Modi delivered in a one flight from Moscow "guns for Afghanistan and roses for Islamabad (Lahore)."
The inaugural round of the Quadrilateral Coordination Committee involving the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, at the level of senior officials, on resumption of the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, was held in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 11 January, less than a fortnight after the strikes.
What Pakistan would have hoped to convey prior to this meeting to the concerned stakeholders is that an increased Indian presence in Afghanistan would be at cross-purpose to their objectives of bringing peace to the country, and in the process, rule out any role for India in the Afghan reconciliation.