India-Pakistan rivalry reaches into Afghanistan
The Indian Consulate here is bustling with delegations of Indian diplomats and businessmen, who are snapping up many of the lucrative projects to rebuild the roads and infrastructure of Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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Just a few blocks away, the Pakistani Consulate is swamped as well - but with Afghans waiting for visas to visit refugee relatives across the border. It isn't the diplomatic mission Pakistan really wants.
This unequal status reflects a turning of tables in 2001, when Northern Alliance forces - bankrolled for years by India - rolled into Kabul on the heels of the retreating Taliban, who had swept to power five years earlier with Pakistan's assistance. The fallout has helped take the 56-year rivalry between India and Pakistan beyond their borders into a third country that both seek to befriend.
For the most part, the Afghan variant of this rivalry is seen in benign ways, but Afghan authorities and Western diplomats warn that there is a subcurrent of skulduggery. And as Pakistan and India trade charges of sabotage and terrorism - including a hand-grenade attack on the Indian Consulate here last week - many diplomats here worry this rivalry could quickly get out of hand.
"It would definitely be unhelpful if India and Pakistan were playing bat and ball in Afghanistan," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad. "I think it's fair to say that India has an intelligence presence in southern Afghanistan, as does Pakistan, but whether it is intelligence gathering or special operations is hard to say. Obviously, the latter would be much more of a concern."
With so many enemies, Afghanistan is looking for a few true friends.
Officially, at least, India and Pakistan - along with the US, Russia, Iran, Germany, Britain, and others - remain firmly on the friends list.
But Afghan authorities here admit there is little they can do, in their current weak state, to stop friends from using Afghanistan once again as the launching base for a proxy war.
It's yet another concern for Afghanistan's leaders to factor in, along with stalled reconstruction projects, fragile security, and growing Taliban attacks along Afghanistan's southern borders.
"We have certainly let both Pakistan and India know that we will not allow our country to be used again as a terrorist base," says one senior Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At first glance, the Indo-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan seems harmless enough, and even somewhat beneficial. Competition between India and Pakistani construction firms near the southern city of Kandahar, for instance, has spurred a building spree of roads. Much to Pakistan's irritation, India won the contract for the road from Kandahar to Spin Boldak, the Afghan town that borders the Pakistani town of Chaman.
But elsewhere, the rivalry is played with more than a touch of James Bond. The grenade attack on the Indian Consulate in Jalalabad, for instance, fits what Indian diplomats call a pattern of harassment and sabotage against their efforts, including attacks on Indian road crews. Afghan authorities have detained seven suspects - all Afghan - in connection with the attack that left no injuries, only building damage.