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.

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.

Touch of James Bond

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.

Navtej Sarna, spokesman for the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Delhi, blames the grenade attack and others on what he calls "ISI-trained terrorists." The ISI is an acronym for Pakistan's ultrasecret Inter-Services Intelligence department.

Both India and Pakistan have additional consulates in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar. India reopened its diplomatic buildings after the fall of the Taliban.

"It's for the Afghans to decide which countries get to set up consulates in their countries," says Mr. Sarna. "We have strong bilateral relations with Afghanistan, and we want to help them rebuild their country. India also sees Afghanistan as a route to Central Asia. So it has nothing to do with Pakistan."

Pakistan's accusations

For its part, Pakistan blames such attacks on Afghan elements and on Afghanistan's declining security situation in general. And Pakistani officials say that India's activities have less to do with humanitarian aid and more to do with India's top-secret intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW.

Pakistan's allegations range from Indian consulates printing false Pakistani currency to RAW's alleged recruitment of Afghans to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism on Pakistani territory.

Pakistan also accuses India of setting up a network of "terrorist training camps" located inside Afghanistan, including at the Afghan military base of Qushila Jadid, north of Kabul; near Gereshk in southern Helmand Province; in the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul; and at Khahak and Hassan Killies in western Nimroz Province.

The Monitor was not able to verify these allegations independently. India's spokesman, Sarna, calls these charges "rubbish."

Pakistan also alleges that Indian diplomats prompted Afghan warlord Hazrat Ali, the security commander of Nangrahar Province, to fire artillery shells onto Pakistani Army positions in Pakistan's Mohmand tribal agency last month. Mr. Ali maintains that Pakistani Army troops have moved 25 miles into Afghan territory. Pakistan replies that they have deployed troops on the border, at America's urging, to prevent cross border attacks by the Taliban.

Old argument repurposed

"Pakistan very much wants a stable Afghanistan, because they are next to us, and any instability up there will leak into Pakistan," says a senior official in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. "But as for the Indians, we told Afghanistan that if they open those consulates in southern Afghanistan, the only purpose is cross border terrorism into Pakistan."

Noting that coalition forces have only 11,500 troops to patrol a country larger than France, the Pakistani official says it is plausible for India to set up small, mobile training camps in Afghanistan, if it had the cooperation of the Afghan government.

Then the Pakistani official uses an argument that Indians have used for decades about Pakistani based militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir, "Terrorism is a fungible commodity," he warns. "Once you use terrorists somewhere, they can be deployed somewhere else. America trained people to fight against the Russians, and then they got used somewhere else."

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