Behind the Indian Embassy Bombing

"You would think that the Bush administration would be coaching the Karzai government not to antagonize Pakistan unnecessarily by cozying up to India."

By Robert D. Kaplan

GWADAR, PAKISTAN—According to U.S. intelligence sources, Pakistan's intelligence service provided support to pro-Taliban insurgents responsible for the July 7 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 40 people. Shocking though Pakistani involvement may seem to some, it is thoroughly predictable, given the worldview and interests of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Unless we address what's angering the ISI, we won't be able to stabilize Afghanistan or capture al-Qaeda leaders inside its borders.

The war in Afghanistan is part of Pakistan's larger struggle with India. Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades. To Pakistan, Afghanistan represents a strategic rear base that would (along with the Islamic nations of ex-Soviet Central Asia) offer a united front against Hindu-dominated India and block its rival's access to energy-rich regions. Conversely, for India, a friendly Afghanistan would pressure Pakistan on its western border—just as India itself pressures Pakistan on its eastern border—thus dealing Pakistan a strategic defeat.

In the 1980s, India backed the secular pro-Soviet regime of Mohammad Najibullahn in Kabul, and Pakistan backed the mujahideen guerrillas trying to topple him. Because our own strategic interests were aligned with Pakistan's, we encouraged the ISI to support the rebels, many of whom would later become allies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But in 1991 came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a decade later 9/11. While the world changed for us, the importance of Afghanistan to India and Pakistan remained the same. India still needed to back a relatively secular regime in Kabul, just as Pakistan needed to support Islamic insurgents who wanted to topple it. Thus, our interests are now more or less aligned with those of the Soviets 20 years ago. But rather than repeat their mistakes, we need to strive to prevent Pakistan from turning into the enemy of the American-backed government in Kabul.

Given these realities, you would think that the Bush administration would be coaching the Karzai government not to antagonize Pakistan unnecessarily by cozying up to India. Whatever coaching did happen has failed. The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India, and allowed Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif. It has kept alive the possibility of inviting India to help train the new Afghan army, and to help in dam construction in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar, abutting Pakistan. All this has driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.

The India-Pakistan rivalry is often misconstrued by Americans. For average Indians and Pakistanis, the hatred is far milder than that between Arabs and Jews. Pakistanis speak openly of their high regard for India's democracy and hope that they can emulate it. And especially now, with regular Pakistani troops moved away from the Indian frontier to deal with the terrorist-infested Afghanistan border, there is the false perception that the India-Pakistan rivalry belongs to the past. It doesn't—not because of the attitudes of the general public in each country, but because of the subculture of those manning the intelligence services in New Delhi and Islamabad.

In the mind of the ISI, India uses its new consulates in Afghanistan to back rebels in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan, whose capital, Quetta, is only a few hours' drive from Kandahar. When India talks of building dams in Kunar, the ISI thinks that India wants to help Afghanistan steal Pakistan's water. Karzai's open alliance with India is nearly a casus belli for the ISI. So elements of the ISI have responded in kind; they likely helped in the recent assassination attempt against the Afghan president.

In the midst of all this, both Bush and Barack Obama talk simplistically about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. The India-Pakistan rivalry is just one of several political problems in the region that negate the benefit of more troops. As in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are in danger of conceiving of war in narrow military terms alone, and thus getting the politics wrong.

In the first place, we need vigorous shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi to address India's and Pakistan's fears about Afghanistan. Only by assuaging the ISI's fears, while allowing India its rightful place in Kabul, can we get more cooperation from Pakistan in our fight against Islamic extremism. The ISI thinks we conceive of the war in Afghanistan as merely a manhunt for a few individuals whose deaths or capture will signal a U.S. withdrawal from the region. At the same time, Washington and New Delhi are strengthening their partnership as a lever against China. All this would leave Pakistan more isolated than ever.

Pakistan's grave insecurity complex is fostered by the knowledge that the installation of another military regime could lead to separatist rebellions in places like Baluchistan and Sindh, where the Punjabi-dominated military is seen as enemy No 1. Pakistan's first civilian government in nearly a decade seems utterly weak and ineffectual thus far. Never in its 60-year history has Pakistan been further behind India in political development. (A silver lining is that liberal and secular candidates did well in recent elections, largely because of the growth of the Pakistani middle class.) And the ISI is the crucible for this overbearing sense of failure.

The lesson: To get bin Laden, we need a coherent regional policy of development that draws all three countries into an organic embrace. A manhunt alone will fail. A policy of nation-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan will, counterintuitively, lead to a successful manhunt.

The Pakistani security community sees the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area far less simplistically than we do. It knows many Taliban fight without a particular worldview; they are merely ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who feel left out of the power structure in Kabul. The Pakistanis also know elements loosely aligned with Karzai, such as former mujahideen commanders Din Mohammed and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who do in fact have a clear anti-American, al-Qaeda-sympathetic worldview. Pakistan is far more threatened by Talibanization than the U.S. is, but victory will require deft diplomacy, including alliances with some Taliban elements against others.

In the 1980s, two of America's favorite mujahideen commanders were Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Haqqani is a likely culprit in the Indian Embassy bombing, and both he and Hekmatyar have long been suspected of sheltering bin Laden in their respective border territories. They became our enemies partly because we deserted the region after the Soviet Union collapsed. To avoid disaster again, we have to convince everybody that this time we are here to stay.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/08/behind-the-indian-embassy-bombing/306949/